Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Day 11 – Headed back to Orlando

Bill did not appreciate the 5:45am alarm – he is definitely not a morning person! However, we decided to give ourselves plenty of time to get ready, pack, at least have a cup of coffee and get to the airport in good time. It worked!

Our driver, Antonio, was waiting for us before our 7:00am pick-up time (he had left his house at 5:30am to be on time!). The traffic was light heading towards Tocumen airport but in the other direction it soon became a parking lot! In fact, it made I-4 look like a piece of cake! We looked at all the cars headed towards the city and realized it was no wonder that driving in Panama City was a nightmare!

Since we had plenty of time Priscilla decided not to use a wheelchair and we checked our bags, were assisted through Security (the agent even helped Priscilla put her boot back on!) and by 8:15am we were sitting comfortably in the coffee shop sipping on delicious coffee and enjoying omelets and toast. Bill learned that a “Spanish” omelet in Panama was not the same as in the US! It’s hard to describe but it consisted mostly of potato and soft taco, rather than egg!

On the way to our gate we passed the Duty Free Shop and could not resist buying some Abuelo Rum at less than half the US price!

Before being admitted into the boarding area, we went through another security check! This time, the agent found our Nu Skin hand cream and said we could not take it on board because it was too big! It had been in our hand luggage when we left the US and there was no problem. Next time we’ll remember to pack it in checked luggage!

After landing in Orlando, going through Immigration, picking up the luggage, going through customs and another security check we met our limo driver and headed home. Although everything went smoothly, we both agreed that travel “back in the old days” was a lot more fun!

Our heads are spinning with ideas as to what our life will be like living in El Valle! Certainly, the pace will be slower but we feel there are many opportunities awaiting us. It will take time just to learn more about the country – and the language - and find ways in which we can contribute. And, of course, we are looking forward to sharing our new home with family and friends once we get settled.

For now, we wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Day 10 – Panama City

Driving back from El Valle yesterday we both felt a little melancholy! Our holiday research trip is over and it felt as if we were leaving “home” and good friends!

Today it is all about tying up loose ends in Panama City and getting ready for our flight back to Orlando. We learned from the attorney that a member of his staff would pick up our passports at Immigration and we should be at the office at noon. Immigration had had our passports since last week so that they could be stamped with a 90-day, multiple-entry visa. The visas would have to be renewed until our Pensionado visas are issued (which could take 3 – 10 months!)

First of all, we had to return the rent car to the Thrifty office that was located a few blocks from our condo. Again, we blessed our GPS! There are so many one-way streets and, to complicate matters few, if any, street signs, so it is very difficult to figure out where you are!! Also, being Monday morning the traffic was much worse than yesterday. This didn’t seem to faze Bill very much and it is obvious that he will be a match for the taxi drivers in no time!!

A heavy downpour while we were in Thrifty was going to make it a little difficult for Priscilla to walk very far on crutches and Thrifty kindly offered to drive us to the Marriott Hotel where we relaxed and had some coffee before heading to the Attorney’s office. It is a beautiful hotel and just the thing for those who want to be surrounded by American style living but we decided we preferred to experience a more Panamanian lifestyle.

After a $2 taxi ride to the Attorney’s office we found out that the passports had not arrived yet and would be delivered to our condo. We decided to go to the Copa Airlines office to get our boarding passes (and hopefully change our seats to bulkhead). The office was filled with people and we took a number and sat down. Ours was 79 and the number on the board was 48 so we settled down for a wait. After a while, Bill decided to make sure we could get boarding passes without our passports. It’s a good thing he did because the answer was NO!

After lunch we went back to the condo to await word that the passports were on the way. When Bill called the Attorney’s office at 4:30pm to get an update he was told the passports would be delivered in 10 minutes. 45 minutes later at 5:15pm they arrived and Bill headed off to the Copa Airline office to get the boarding passes before they closed at 6pm. This time his number was “Numero Uno” and the number on the board was 87 (we haven’t learned to count past 10 yet!)

After 15 minutes, Bill decided to ask if there was a line just for boarding passes. The agent pointed to the boarding pass kiosk across the room. Bill asked if they wanted to see the Passports and she said it was not necessary! Oh well …! Bill did as instructed and proceeded to enter in the name and airline record locator number at the kiosk. This was exactly the same information he had entered online in Orlando.

The next step was to print the boarding passes. That ordeal took 15 minutes, with the printer crashing three times! Fortunately, the guard knew how temperamental the kiosk was and came to Bill’s rescue! After shutting down and rebooting three times, Bill emerged with 2 copies of each of the boarding passes! Bill asked him if it would not have been easier to have the passes printed at the counter but he was told by the guard that this was not possible because they had run out of ink!

The moral of the story is to allow plenty of time – and have plenty of patience – to accomplish anything in Panama! We have found that everyone is very helpful, very polite and very friendly and that counts for a lot.

We have a very early start tomorrow so the next blog will come from Orlando and, hopefully, we will have plenty of photos for you to see.

Panama has a very interesting history, fantastic wildlife and birds, a fascinating cultural diversity and incredible beaches and marine life. It will take us months, even years, to fully understand the secrets of this small country and we are looking forward to every minute of it.

See you in the States!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day 9 Back to Panama City

We can’t believe our visit to El Valle is over today! In our few days here we’ve made lots of new friends and it feels as if we’ve been here for months.

We had planned to return to Panama City on Monday but decided it would be best to allow a full day to collect our passports from Immigration, have a final meeting with our Attorney and get our boarding passes from Copa. So, after bidding our hosts a fond farewell and promises to keep in touch via email, we set off for the Panama City domestic Airport.

An uneventful drive brought us to the Airport, only to find that Thrifty is not open at the airport on Sunday! We can return the car to a downtown location tomorrow so, with the help of our Garmin, we set off! Driving in Panama City is not something Priscilla was looking forward to but Bill, on the other hand, thought it would be a great adventure! Fortunately, since it was early on Sunday, traffic was minimal and apart from one missed turn-off we arrived close to the condo in a very short space of time. There is no way we could have made it without the Garmin! We decided to stop at Rey’s Supermarket a couple of blocks from the condo and buy something for dinner so that we could eat in, catch up on the blog and relax!

Rey’s Supermarkets carry everything that you could want! The one on Via Espana is huge, has an excellent meat counter and a very good choice of pre-packaged salads, cerviche, cooked chicken, wraps, etc.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Day 8 More El Valle!

After Bill fixed coffee and served it on the patio along with pastries purchased the night before at the Bakery, he was so exhausted he needed to rest in the hammock! It’s a tough life in Panama!

As we were sitting enjoying our coffee a humming bird came whizzing past us, checking out the flowers within a few feet of where we were sitting. Iridescent green and red, this little bird had come visiting last night as well! The owners of the property will be installing bird feeders and planting more bird-friendly plants to make this a wonderful bird sanctuary.

We decided to check out the waterfall and zip line that is just a short distance from our cabana. The walk takes 15 – 20 minutes and we decided that Bill would do that while Priscilla sat in the car and caught up on the Blog. Bill took a video of his walk and it will be posted - along with others - as soon as we return to the States and figure out how to do it!

The road up the mountain from the waterfall check-in site looked pretty rough but we were assured that our vehicle could make it. So --- off we went! We came across signs indicating “Las Nubes – Where the Earth meets the Sky” and continued our drive up some very steep roads – definitely not a drive you’d do at night or after a party! They are not kidding! Thankfully, the road soon became paved, otherwise only a 4-wheel drive vehicle would be able to make it. Even so, it was a pretty hairy ride! We saw 2 houses that were completed but didn’t look occupied and 1 house that was being constructed. Definitely too remote for our tastes – it would be a “safari” to get a loaf of bread! However, we’re sure this is only one of many developments planned for the future that will surely change the face – and pace - of El Valle.

On our return to town we met up with Mario, whose son owns the Bruschetta restaurant and the Pizza Parlor. He had told us that he knew of a house for rent nearby and he took us to see it. The house is owned by an airline flight attendant and was available for rent for $650 per month. Unfortunately, the caretaker, was not available but, from what we were able to see, it looked like a very nice property. 3 bedroom/2 bath with a beautiful garden. We’ll see if it is available when we come back in a few months..

After checking out the market – fruits, plants and tourist items - we had lunch at the Residencial Hotel on the main street and met a couple who were from – guess where? – the Orlando area! They had come up to El Valle for the day from Panama City and were a little disappointed that there wasn’t much to do here. We recommended several things for them to do (we’ve only been here 3days and we are already playing Tour Guide!) and then went back “home” to our cabana.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Day 7 Exploring El Valle

Our morning started with a cup of coffee on the front patio of the main house. Dennis put food out for the birds but this morning very few came, mainly because the family parrot was in the tree hogging the food!

We decided to check out the “Gourmet Coffee Shop” to get our fill of the great Panamanian coffee. We sat on their covered patio, caught up on the blog and made plans for the day. We spent about an hour at the Internet shop to log on and update the blog ($1.00 per hour).

By this time it was lunchtime and we had a sandwich at the Don Pepe Hotel and Restaurant. We find that the portions served in Panama are even larger than in the US which is not going to do much for our waistlines!

After lunch we drove around a very nice residential area up the mountain. There is great wealth in El Valle and some of the houses that we saw were huge mansions set in exquisite grounds. Our goal was to check out a B&B called The Golden Frog situated further up the mountain. We met Larry, one of the owners, who told us the history of the property and gave us a tour of the facilities. The site is absolutely stunning! We have learned that all the hotels in the area are for sale and the Golden Frog is one of them! Real estate prices have increased tremendously in the past few years and many people are looking to make a fortune on their properties. Sounds familiar??!! So, the best thing to do is wait for a year of so and see what the prices are then!

We continued our tour and drove past three other hotels in the area before heading back to town to buy some coffee and a few odds and ends that we needed. Back at the Cabana we settled down on our patio for a cocktail and some snacks and chatted with our host, Dennis. A quick trip down town to the local Pizza Parlor for an excellent pizza and another full day came to a close.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day 6 El Valle

We had an excellent cup of coffee and some pastries ($6). We were hoping for something a little more “Panamanian” in the way of pastries but it all looked pretty similar to what is found in the US. We sat next door at the Internet Café, enjoyed our breakfast and people watched.

After checking out of the Hotel Residencial it was time for lunch and we decided on a place which looked pretty good. The food was OK ($7 including tip) but they did not serve cervezas. So we decided to find a restaurant/bar and came across the Bruschetta Restaurant. There were some “foreign” looking people having lunch on the patio and some beer bottles on the table, which was a good sign!

We soon learned that one couple was from Ontario and they were on a birding trip. We chatted a little with them and when they left, another couple who had been listening to our conversation started talking to us. We spent the next hour asking them questions and hearing about their experiences since their move to El Valle from Connecticut 3 years ago. They were renting a house (which is what we intend to do when we first come here to live) while they build a home on some hectares that their son owns further up the mountain. They learned we had been in the travel business and before we knew it, they had called another couple in town who had also been in the travel business!

We also were given some suggestions as to where we should stay for the rest of our visit. We learned that a certain place was over-priced, another the owner was not nice and if we went to a certain place we should bargain on the price and insist on a particular room!! This kind of information was priceless! One place that they recommended was Cabanas Potosi which is owned by Dennis and Mireye Wenthold, retired teachers from Naples, FL. We had a little difficulty finding the place but were thrilled when we did. This property is really for hikers and birdwatchers, but the cabins (4 in all) have recently been remodeled and are clean and comfortable. The property has been owned by Mireye’s 86 year old mother for many years and Dennis and Mireye had just signed the papers today and are now the proud owners!

Priced at $43 per night, we have a fridge in our room, plenty of hot water, a fan (there is no need for A/C since we are at 3,000ft. above sea level). We slept with the windows open and there was a lovely breeze. Tomorrow we will go to the store and buy a few things that we need. It takes just a few minutes to get in to town and yet the cabanas are on the edge of the rain-forest.

By the time we had checked in to the Cabanas, Bill had received a call from the people who had been in the travel business. They invited us over for a drink and we had a great evening admiring their lovely home, hearing about their past travel experiences and talking with their friend who owns a travel company in Prague. Again, we received all kinds of great advice and we left there feeling like we were already part of a friendly community.

The Bruschetta Restaurant has the best food at the best prices so we decided to have dinner there on our way home. Bill chose a skewered mixed grill with French fries and I had langoustine with baked potato – both recommended by our new travel friends! The meal included a delicious salad and cost $20. By this time we were ready for an early night and it didn’t take us long to get to sleep.

Today we saw what the “rainy season” is like! It started off with a beautiful, blue sky, then while we were at Bruschetta’s it started to pour with rain so that we had to move inside. By the time we were ready to leave, it was just misting. People here are used to this type of weather and we saw school kids walking home in the rain (most didn’t have umbrellas) and yard men continuing to cut grass and rake leaves in the rain!

Tomorrow we will do more exploring and, probably meet some other interesting people and learn more about life in El Valle.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Day 5 Travel to El Valle

Today our plan was to join up with a friend of ours from Orlando and head off to a beach house and explore from there. We were looking forward to this because he is very familiar with Panama and is a great person to travel with. We were distressed to receive word from him yesterday that, due to a family emergency, he would not be joining us.

Since our objective was to check out the El Valle area, we decided to drive out and find a place to stay. We picked up our rent car - a brand new Hundi SUV - at Allbrook, the domestic airport, at around 1pm and headed out towards the Pan American Highway. We had our Garmin working so we could relax and enjoy the scenery.

At 2:45pm we stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe and met an American who was living nearby. He told us that instead of considering living in Panama we should check out Colombia which was much safer and much cheaper! The only reason he was in Panama was because he had a son there. He said that if we wanted to live in Panama we should check out Chiriqui Province. In fact, we had visited Boquete in Chiriqui on our last trip and really liked it. We are sure we will get a lot of different advice during this trip!

Once we turned off the Highway towards El Valle, we got the sense that the hustle and bustle was behind us. We passed well kept homes surrounded by attractive gardens and we noticed there was no trash lying around! The landscape was lush and the road switched back and forth as we climbed steadily, our ears popping every now and then! Clouds started to cover the tops of the mountains as we dipped down in to the caldera.

We arrived in the town of El Valle and drove through it in a couple of minutes! It is a little different from what we had been expecting! We had booked a night in a "downtown" hotel which is basic, clean and has wifi! We sat for a while watching the town close down at 6pm - school kids walking home, workers riding their bikes home and dogs managing to avoid the cars while crossing the road.

Tomorrow we'll explore the area and hopefully meet up with Expats living here so we can get a feel for the place.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Day 4 Trip to Immigration

The alarm woke us at 6am so we could be at the Attorney's office at 8:00 sharp - as instructed yesterday - and leave immediately for Immigration to avoid a long wait. Although there are thousands of taxis in the city, it often takes a while to get one so we arrived 12 minutes late. No problem --- as it was, we didn't leave the Attorney's office until 9:00am, stopped for gas and got to Immigration around 9:30am. The plan today was this: we would go to Immigration and register, at which point our passports would be stamped and we would go on our way. The Attorney would keep our passports and, once we were in the system (2 days), papers would be filed and we would return to Immigration to get our photo taken and be issued a "carnet". This is a temporary ID (valid for 90 days) while our Pensionado Visa is being processed.

Our Attorney representative, Felix, checked in at the front desk at Immigration while we found a couple of seats in a large room divided in to several different areas with different counters - obviously for different functions - but no signs that we could see indicating what they were for. Behind the counters were several desks and in one area people lined up to take a number. We had
NO idea what was going on but very soon our man, Felix, came in, walked up to a counter and then beckoned to us. A very attractive young lady behind the counter asked each of us a few questions, filled out a couple of forms, stapled photos on to each and gave them to us to sign and "thumb print". Our passports were stamped and we returned to our seats. Cost - $10.

At this point we should have "left the building", however, we learned from Felix that rather than wait for 2 days to get our carnet, we could get it today. This was great news and quite unexpected, however, certain documents needed to be notarized so Felix took off to take care of this. We passed the time reading our books, people watching and Bill made several excursions around the building before he found a men's "banos" on another floor! 2 hours later, Felix reappears and, again, maneouvers his way to a spot where he can talk with a very official looking person. He came back and asked if we had another photo and grinned and wiped his brow when we produced them! Obviously, had we not had one, this would have caused a delay. By the way, Felix did not speak much English but it was obvious that this was not the first time he had done this and he knew his way around!

While Felix was smoothing the way for us, Bill struck up a conversation with a couple sitting in front of us -- surprise, surprise! The man was wearing a FloridaAtlantic University T-shirt and it turned out that his son attended the college. We learned that Irwin and his Panamanian wife, Peggy, live in Plantation, FL and also in Panama City. We were deep in conversation with them when we learned there was just one more hiccup --- the "Sworn Statement of Personal Background" that we had filled out previously needed to be done in Spanish - not English. Peggy acted as translator for us and even sat down and amended the form for us! Where would we have been without her?! We are looking forward to keeping in touch with them.

The final step was to have our photos taken for our "carnet" which took only a few minutes and cost $60! By now it was 1:30 and we were beginning to get hungry. But there was one more stop to make! We drove half way across town to another Immigration office where Felix took our passports and handled the transaction for us while we stayed in the car. Phew!!! Bill had received a recommendation from Panama Yahoo Groups for a restaurant not too far from our condo. Felix dropped us off at La Perla del Oriente where we had 2 huge lunches and cokes for $6.40. We walked back to the condo via a phone store where Bill bought a simcard and prepaid phone minutes for his US Blackberry. Tomorrow we'll get a map data chip for the GPS and head out of town. Another full and successful day!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Day 3 Attorney's Office

Monday morning and this is the day we had set aside to meet with the Attorneys and finalize all paperwork. It was a long day but we accomplished what we set out to do. The process went smoothly because in late September we had sent them all the necessary documents, duly authenticated by the Panamanian Consultate in Washington DC. These documents had to be translated into Spanish by an officially certified translation service. This can add a couple more days to the process so we had sent them ahead of time to avoid hanging around Panama City any longer than necessary.

3 additional documents are required to submit a Pensionado Visa Application: a Special Power of Attorney, a "Letter of Responsibility" in which the applicant (Bill) acknowledges that he is responsible for dependants (in this case, Priscilla) , and a Sworn Statement of Personal Background which is a form with 37 questions.

The other thing that needed to be done before we could go to Immigration was to have a health certificate. This turned out to be very simple and, in fact, a very pleasant experience! Our Attorney called a walk-in clinic just around the corner which was spotlessly clean. We filled out a short form, sat for about 10 minutes and then Priscilla was called in to see a Dr. who spoke good English but with a heavy accent. He asked the usual Dr. questions, checked out her foot, took her blood pressure and listened to her heart. He proclaimed her in excellent health and that was that. Next was Bill who went through the same procedure. The health certificates cost us $25 each and we were on our way!

Prior to going to the clinic we had to make a run back to the condo to pick up more money as the Attorney told us that he needed to have $1300 in certified checks for tomorrow's trip to Immigration. $800 of this is a deposit (in case we are deported prior to receiving our Visa!) and will be returned to us when we get the visas. It would have been good to know this before we arrived at the office but our Attorney had been out of the country for some time and only returned to the office today.

After we left the clinic it was time for a late lunch and there was a cafe across the street. The menu was written on a white board outside the door. Of course it was in Spanish so we really couldn't understand what the items were so landed up ordering Pollo (chicken)! For $3.50 each we had a wonderful plate of rice, chicken in a tomato sauce and a small bowl of lentils --- yummy! Add a couple of Atlas cervezas and our lunch cost us $10! As we were leaving, we saw the shuttle take off from Cape Canaveral on the big screen TV!

Back to the Attorney's office to sign the final documents. Then the challenge of finding a taxi at 4.45pm rush hour! Bill finally hailed one - a really beat-up car with a great driver who insisted Priscilla sit in front with him because of her foot and then proceeded to talk to her in Spanish the entire way back to the condo! She nodded and smiled and he continued to talk!! We should have filmed it -- too funny! Our 5 taxi rides for the day cost us $13.

By the time we got home, Priscilla was exhausted and needed a cup of tea! She stayed at the condo and started on today's blog while Bill took off for the nearest Supermarket - Rey - for some Abuelo rum, ginger ale and some snacks!

Tomorrow will be another busy day - we will be at the Attorney's office at 8:00am and from there to Immigration. We are taking books to read because it could be a long wait!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Day 2 Panama City

We woke to a slightly overcast day (May - Dec is the rainy season in Panama and we understand that November is the worst month!) Last time we were here in May so it is good to experience a different climate. We brought umbrellas and rain jackets with us and we'll see how often we have to use those.

Breakfast is available from 7 - 10am which is great for people who don't want to get up too early! Bill brought me coffee in bed around 8:15am which I enjoyed while reading my book - I felt very spoiled! After getting cleaned up - water not hot enough but that will be fixed - we had a continental breakfast - cereal and muffin - in the tiny kitchen area. There is a full sized fridge and stove and you can bring in food and cook here if you wish. This is typical of B&B's in Panama.

Bill then went on a recce of the area to check out where he could get a disc for the Nuvi 255W Garmin that he purchased in the US. His research showed that this is the only GPS that will work in both the US and Panama and that Panafoto sold the disc for $29. Unfortunately, the only disc they had was in an open box and no one could get it to work. The next stop was a $2 taxi ride away to Multimax where they tried to sell him the disc for $109!! Looks like we need to check out some other places tomorrow!

On Bill's walking tour he tried to find our Attorney's office which is only a few blocks from here but, after getting lost amongst the confusing streets and no street signs, he caught a taxi back home. Tomorrow we plan to take a taxi for our 9:30am meeting with our Attorney!

When Bill returned, it was lunchtime and we decided to stop off at a nearby Sports Bar/Restaurant and enjoy lunch on the patio. We saw lots of people coming and going so Bill decided to check inside and found that you could place bets there on anything from football to horses. We were watching the Detroit Lions/Viking game and decided the Lions were not a good bet!

So, we came all the way for the States to watch an NFL game - which we never do at home!
From Panama Blog

We decided to go with the waiter's suggestions of shrimp and yellow rice and a fried whole fish - head, tail and all - called Corvina, served with plantains. Both were delicious and together with 4 beers came to a grand total of $20.75!

Check out their website at

After our late, and very large lunch, we decided to relax in the evening and get ready for our meeting with the Attorneys.

Flying in to Panama yesterday reminds you of just how much of the country is covered in lush "jungle" type vegetation and also how mountainous it is. On the Caribbean side of the country we saw very little in the way of houses or towns. We then flew over the volcanic mountains and as we approached Panama City, the landscape changed and suddenly there were houses, towns, and we could see cows on cleared land. On the approach to the Airport, the area becomes dense with houses of all shapes, sizes and condition! Lots of red roofs, brightly painted walls, surrounded by banana plants, palms and colorful tropical plants. We are looking forward to seeing more of this beautiful country in the coming days.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Day 1 Orlando - Panama

From Trip
Well, our journey begins today and - for once - we feel we are organized! The alarm at 6:30am got us going and by 9:30am we were packed and taking care of last minute details like changing phone messages, etc. Our limo picked us up at 12 noon and, on our drive to the Orlando airport, we realized we had forgotten the majic jack phone and our guide book!! Oh well, we had our passports, tickets and some money so we figured we were set!

Copa Airlines flight (a 737) was on time and excellent. Since I am on crutches nursing a broken foot, I joined 5 other wheel chair cases, boarded first and settled in to a bulkhead seat. Initially we were seated at the back of the plane and Bill tried to get bulk head seats confirmed before we left, however, due to a loss in translation, he was told there were no bulkhead seats on the plane! When he printed our boarding cards, he found 5A&B open and changed our seats. On boarding the plane we found these to be bulkheads seats and enjoyed the row to ourselves! After a nice snack, a Panamian beer and the movie "Julie & Julia" we arrived at Tocumen Airport around 5:30pm (a 3 hour flight).

We are booked at the Cadiz Tower in Panama City for 3 nights. The 7th floor of this building is owned by an American and has 5 rooms ranging in price from $60 - $140 per night, including a continental breakfast, use of a cell phone, free wifi and a caretaker on property. We had booked a room at $60 per night but were upgraded so that we could have an ensuite bathroom (there are some advantages to being on crutches!). The owner also arranged for a taxi to meet us at the airport on arrival. This was great because not many taxi drivers speak English and explaining where we wanted to go could have been a problem.

Being last off the plane and no wheelchair waiting (although we filled out paperwork in Orlando to make this happen!), we figured our bags would be waiting for us! Not so - in fact it took about 20 minutes for them to arrive. We made it through customs very quickly - again thanks to the wheelchair! - and found our driver, Antonio, waiting for us. A smooth drive to the condo ($27 plus a $3 tip) using the toll road got us there in about 20 minutes. Taxi drivers in Panama do not expect tips and a taxi fare across the city can cost as little at $3.00 or $4.00 - unless you look like a Gringo and then the price goes up!!

Bill found the condo on Craig's List and we chose it because of the location. It is right around the corner from the Marriott, also a Casino and lots of restaurants. We decided to go out and explore the area a little and found a great, busy, noisy Lebanese Restaurant called Beirut, where we enjoyed a combination platter consisting of 8 small plates of different Lebanese dishes - from hummus to a moussaka type dish - Delicous! We people-watched as we enjoyed the food and a rum and ginger ale. There were a lot of people smoking hookahs (a middle eastern water pipe) and we learned that different fruit flavors are available at a price of $14 and up for half an hour. The fruit is rendered to a pulp and mixed with 5% tobacco and heated. The place was filled with a mixture of nationalities and was a great way to get in to the spirit of Panama! As soon as we sat down we realized that we had left the cameras behind -- what were we thinking?! We'll do better from now on!

It would have been nice to wander around a little more but I must confess it is an effort using the crutches, even though I can put some weight on my foot. If you are thinking sidewalks like we have in the States, forget it! The pavement is uneven, with steps down and up all over the place. Cars zoom down the streets, horns blaring ---! Anyway, it had been a long day and we headed back to our room to watch Larry King on our LG Big Screen TV and go to sleep! More tomorrow!

Friday, November 13, 2009

How did we decide on Panama?

During the years we traveled, we found several places where we felt we would like to “retire”. These included Bali, Indonesia (probably at the top of our list) Chiang Mai, Thailand and the Western Cape in South Africa, to name a few. The problem is that these places are half way around the world! We would be a long way from family (grandkids, in particular) and it would be expensive to travel back and forth. Although we had never traveled to Central America, we kept hearing about Belize, Costa Rica and Panama. We also thought seriously about Mexico. These countries were closer to Central Florida (Panama 3 hours) and so we started doing our research.

Eventually, in May 2007 we decided to see why Panama was creating so much excitement. We spent 2 weeks touring the country and returned to the US feeling that we could live very happily there. We were very fortunate to have traveling with us a native born Panamanian who had recently “retired” from the US Marine Corps. He enlisted the help of his cousin and the four of us drove from Panama City to Boquete, stopping along the way to get a sense of the soul of this country.

We explored the beaches of Coronado, stopped for a snack at the bustling town of Penanome and drove on to Las Tablas in the Azueros Peninsular. That evening we walked to the town square which was filled with families buying ice cream for the kids, people entering the pretty little church and others using the internet café. We enjoyed a cervesa at a small café/store and retired for the night at a very basic hotel. The next day we saw a very nice looking hotel which we decided we’d book when we return!

We spent a couple of nights at the lovely Hotel Guayacanes in Chitre and from there explored the area, looking at properties and “fincas” for sale and enjoying a wonderful evening at the Chitre Fair. This annual event attracts people from all over Panama. We bought an excellent (and very inexpensive) meal at one of the stalls and sat at a table around a dance floor to enjoy the food, the beer, entertainment and dancing! We were the only “gringos” but, since our companions knew, or were related to, many of the people there, we soon felt at home and had a wonderful evening. We do remember that it was extremely hot and yet everyone was wearing jeans! Only gringos wear shorts in Panama!

It was now time to drive west to Boquete, a beautiful town in the mountains close to the Costa Rica border. The journey takes you through cattle ranches, rice and sugar cane fields and, as you start to climb, the landscape becomes more lush and forested. The road we traveled on is the Pan American Highway which runs from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the lower reaches of South America. A 54 mile stretch, known at the Darien Gap, between the Colombian border and the rainforest of the province of Darien in Panama keeps the highway from being connected the entire way. If the word “highway” brings to mind a four lane, paved road, think again!! The stretch we traveled in Panama was a two lane road, 13 miles of which were REALLY bad! Traffic consists of large trucks as well as a variety of vehicles, all trying to reach their destination as quickly as possible! All of a sudden you come across crews patching the roads – no warning signs at all – and you have to jam on the breaks or beat the oncoming traffic. Quite hair-raising to say the least and definitely not a road you want to travel after dark!