Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Panama City Tours & Sight Seeing

Panama Currency - US Speed boat to Tobago - $10.00 round trip - Leaves Panama City from Balboa Yacht club (beginning of the causeway)
Taxi from hostel to Balboa Yacht club $7.00 (4 people per cab)
El Valle Jungle Trek: $2.50

As mentioned in the previous post I settled in at Hostel Mamallena for my stay in Panama City. They have some great info on things to do and see along with detailed instructions on which local buses to take and or what the best route is to walk to where you are going, what you should pay for cabs to the different areas etc. One of the recommendations was to take a day trip to Taboga Island. There is no organized tour, but 8 of us from the hostel decided to all go over together.

There are 2 ways to get to Taboga, 1 is via the ferry @ a cost of $2.50 each way it takes about an hour 1/2 each way. The other option is to take a speed boat at a cost of $5.00 each way but the trip only takes 20 minutes. We decided to take the speed boat, it leaves at 8am but the seating is very limited so we got there at 7am to make sure we could get on. The return trip is at 4pm. The boat was full when we left the dock. Again I had alarm clock issues but this time is was user error. I forgot that Panama is an hour ahead of Costa Rica and didn't reset my alarm clock. I got woken up by a fellow traveler and had 5 minutes to get out the door.. No coffee and I forgot sunscreen and a towel. Clocks & time are not my friends. Luckily there was a guy selling coffee out of the trunk of his car along with buns and breads, he was parked beside the boat ticket place, the best coffee ever. It ate right threw the crap on my teeth that I didn't have time to brush.

Taboga is beautiful but a little neglected. There was a retired US couple on the boat with us and the wife was telling me they used to come there in the 1970's and it was beautiful and there was a large 5 star hotel there. Where the hotel was is now an empty lot and many of the buildings are run down. But none of it detracts from the quaint village feel of the place. It is also very hot there and there is not a lot of shade in the streets of the town which are all uphill or on the beach. Shade can be found if you head up the mountain which some crazy people from the hostel did. Me I stuck to the beach and wandering around town. We did give in and rented a beach umbrella from a vendor ($5.00), way too much sun going on. There are some great little restaurants, I got a fresh made juice, bottle of water and some ham and eggs for $2.50. Before we headed back a few of us hit the Chinese restaurant for beers (.75 cents) and fried rice & fried Plantains, supper cheap as well. All in all an excellent way to spend the day, got a little crispy burnt but not too bad. There are plenty of accommodations on the island if you want to spend a few days there.

The hostel also has a few tours of their own that they run. A beach day, a trip to the Gatun locks (Caribbean side with 3 locks - Pacific side - Miraflores locks has 2) and they had a first trial run one that I opted to take. Because it was a test run they only charged $15.00 for it, once it is on the regular tour schedule it will be about $30.00.

First stop on the tour: Manuel Noriega's beach house. Back in 1989 that is where he was when the US decided to invade Panama and remove him from power. There is a military base/air strip in the same area. Kind of funny one of the airstrip runways goes right across the Pan American Highway. The US did not get Noriega at the house, he escaped to Panama City where they eventually got him. However they did shoot up the house pretty good. The locals consider the house and grounds cursed so it is unlikely that the land will every be sold and lived on again. There is a big sign that says no trespassing on the gate going in, obviously we ignored this and it would seem so did lots of other people. I have heard that if caught the police just tell you to leave... but you never know they could arrest you or hit you up for a bribe so enter at your own risk. The house has been stripped of pretty much everything but you can still get the Miami vice feel of the place. It was probably something in it's day. There is an island with a cross on it in the bay. Rumor has it that the cross could be lit up by a switch in the house. Seems if the Colombians wanted to run cocaine threw Panama they needed to pay off Noriega. He would light up the cross so the Colombians knew were to drop the bribe money. There is a great beach in front of the house so after rummaging around in the ruins we went for a nice swim before getting back on the party van. The drive to the beach house took about 2 hours.

Next up visit a cigar factory: We did stop off to do some shopping, one of the guys in our party wanted to get a Panama hat for his Dad and we grabbed a little lunch at a local cafe, they only serve chicken soup. It is really good chicken soup but a little strange that they specialize that specifically. They do give you a side of rice with it all for $1.75 I could not finish all of mine, it is a very large bowl of soup.

The cigar factory is Joyas De Panama Cigars, they got their seeds from some Cuban's who brought them to Panama. Judging from the web site you would think that it is a huge operation. Not so, it is a little building in the middle of nowhere. I don't remember the name of the town and it is not on their web site but if you want to go contact them for directions. The guy that was making the cigars can do one up in about a minute and 1/2. I don't think they get many visitors there so they treated us like royalty, they wanted to make sure that we saw everything and liked to answer questions. The big ass humidor was huge, and the smell was awesome. I bought a 5 pack of Churchill's for $10.00, just checked their web site and it looks like I got a good deal. I am not sure that they will survive in the backpack for the entire trip so I may have to smoke them before they break. I defiantly recommend checking this out. Drive from Noriega house to cigar factoryjone and 1/2 hours.

Next up the jungle trek: In a town called El Valle there is a hot springs as well as a nature reserve. We were going to go to the hot springs as well but they closed at 4. Due to a little diesel issue with our van (we ran out of it) we didn't get there until just before 4 so saw no point in paying $2.50 to get in for a few minutes. Kudo's to the hostel folks for flagging us down rides into town so we didn't have to sit on the side of the road till they got diesel delivered. And kudos to the Aussie guy on the tour who bled the lines. A small glitch in the plan but not too much of an issue, went for a beer in town and checked out the market.

The jungle trek was okay but they do nickle and dime you for everything. It was $2.50 to go on the trek, if you wanted to swim in the pools and use the bathroom it was another $3.50. Jokes on them we splashed in the pool anyway and I think a few of the guys peed in them as well :-). They give you sticks/poles to aid you on the hike. Giving sticks to a bunch of backpackers is just a bad idea, we ended up re-enacting martial arts movies the whole trek. It is 4.5kms and it is very pretty, a lot of it was uphill and with the heat was pretty tiring. It took about 2 hours to do the trek. They also offer zip line tours $54.00 (rip off) and guided trek of the same one we did $35.00 (also a rip off). Takes about an hour to get back to Panama City

A good time was had by all but it was a very long day. We left the hostel at 8:30 am and got back at around 8:30pm.. Lots of sleepy stinky backpackers.

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