Enough time had been spent in Panama City, so I set off after breakfast to Boquete, a picturesque mountain town apparently about six or seven hours away. This was to be the first of several travel days on the 5-week trip. I found my way to Allbrook Terminal again, by means of the Corredor Sur bus once again (0.50 USD) and acquired a ticket to David, the second-biggest city in Panama, for about 17 USD. I don’t recall the name of the company with which I traveled, but their buses were big and blue and fortunately afforded enough room for my legs and my backpack. Note to the traveler: you need a metro card to get through the barrier for use of the terminal. It costs 0.10 USD but minimum top-up is a dollar. We set off at 10am and seemed to make quite slow going of it. After a stop at one of the highway restaurants where I tucked into some rice and meat for a handsome 5 USD we arrived into David just as the sun was coming down, the journey taking about 7 hours in the end due to a few delays on the road. I can’t tell you whether the views were any good as I spent most of the ride asleep or reading the newspaper.
Some people had suggested David as a stop-off point on the way North, but I elected to head onwards to Boquete. David bus terminal is admittedly quite big and probably has upwards of 20 bus bays, the majority of which have signs displayed indicating where the bus is going. The bus I needed was at the opposite end from where I got off and was one of the repainted old school buses imported from the US affectionately referred to by the backpacker as chicken buses, though I must admit I didn’t come across any beaked friends on board for the duration of my trip. These buses are generally quite loud, noisy and rather long, with one side having a seat for three passengers and the other for two. Be aware that opting for the empty seat isn’t always the best bet, as at some point or other there’s a possibility that a lady will board the bus with a minimum of three children attached, all of whom will sit on, under and around you, and stare you out for most of the journey. My experience in this kind of thing would teach me to select a seat next to a sane-looking gentleman even if there were entire seats free. I guess I feel a little out of place when family reunions occur on public transport.
The rickety journey took around an hour and a half (2 USD), the last part seeing the vehicle chunder its way up a series of curvaceous mountain roads. Travelers be aware that there exist places by the name of Alto Boquete and Bajo Boquete that you will pass by in order to get to Boquete itself. If in doubt, just ask a fellow passenger if you’re nearly there and they’ll almost always say that they’ll let you know and give you a kind nod or nudge upon arrival. Said nod was given and I alighted at what appeared to the central square in a town which seemed to have been built gradually outwards from the road.
I’d researched beforehand how to get to my pre-booked hostel, Gaia (15 USD per night), and the supermarket I’d noted down where I had to take a left happened to be right in front of where I got off the bus. I walked two blocks and came across my lodgings for the next couple of days; what appeared to be a house converted into a hostel, as often is the case in the region.
The room was adequate with a private bathroom attached, and I managed to score a bottom bunk again. There were six beds in there and only three taken, one by a guy I never saw, and another by a retired sixty-something guy from the US, who complained rather a lot about his home country, but also came up with a few recommendations on where to go. Well, that was the next day, as when I first arrived he was crashed out in bed snoring and hugging a wireless radio pumping out 70’s music. He looked peaceful, so I headed out and thought I’d explore the town.
From one side to the other, the whole place takes about 15 minutes to walk and there can’t be more than five or six blocks either side of the main road. I was hunting for a simple restaurant where I could watch the Panama vs Jamaica football game, but everywhere seemed to be showing the news instead. After electing to eat a pizza I came to realise that it was because of the Paris attacks that no one was supporting the national team.
I noticed that the place was swarming with people of an older generation than I from the US in their SUVs, so perhaps Panama’s reputation for being a top place to retire was justified.
Upon returning to the hostel I took a quick shower to freshen up and decided to take advantage of the hot water to shave as I didn’t know where I’d next get access to it. The bathroom was full of toiletries, towels and clothes which I assumed belonged to the old North American, who had been browsing the area for a house and camping out in the hostel meanwhile.
I got a good night’s sleep (thankfully the radio had been switched off) and the next morning I breakfasted fruit and yoghurt plus tuna omelette, all made by myself. My motivation to cook or even prepare simple food would wane within the week.
I’d been doing some internet research about the hiking to be done in the area and identified the Sendero de los Quetzales, where you could supposedly see the famous green-chested bird, as the trail I’d take on. However, I’d come across an article online regarding two Dutch girls who had disappeared whilst trekking in the area, with a hip bone and a decapitated foot in a shoe the only remains found a few months later. Suffice to say, this spooked me a little, but rather than pay 30 USD and upwards for a guide, I decided to go it alone and asked the owner of the hostel how to get to the trail entrance.
It involved getting a minibus from just across the road outside a supermarket for 3 USD which set off a few minutes after I got in. Remember that for the most part buses don’t follow timetables in Latin America; they go and stop when the driver feels like it, or more often when the vehicle fills up. I requested that the driver drop me at the entrance to the Quetzales route, which he duly did, even going out of his way to do so.
Irma, a Spanish girl got off at the same point as me and we quickly fell into a conversation about traveling and everything else really, which certainly kept us busy during the 3-hour hike up to the viewpoint. Before that, however, we had to wait for the park ranger to arrive, which he didn’t, so we left our names and passport numbers on a piece of paper and posted it under the door instead of continuing to wait. Just in case we went missing, someone might make an effort to come and rescue us. To be honest, everything was well-signposted and there was no way to get lost on the trail (which isn’t always the case, as I would discover in Nicaragua), unless you went off chasing butterflies or monkeys into the trees.
The mystical quetzal unfortunately didn’t appear, but within less than an hour I had to put the brakes on because a rather long black snake was crossing our path. We held our distance and obviously took photos of the beast, wondering if it was dangerous. Irma asked me if it had a triangular head, which I didn’t particularly notice, and then declared that it was usually the third person in line who got bitten by aggressive snakes as the first people to notice would have time to get out of the way as they leap fang-first towards you. I later learned that the darker the snake the worse too, so I was happy not to have accidentally stood on my new slithery friend.
The three-hour hike exposed us to all shades of green, a few hanging bridges and some pretty cascading rivers, yet on reaching the viewpoint finally, we were disappointed to see it masked by the clouds.
We discussed making it back down quickly so as to see a fabled lost waterfall for which we’d seen the sign for on the way, but a monstrous downpour of rain put paid to any such plans and I was certainly grateful to my new friend for sharing her umbrella with me. Needless to say, we were both drenched upon reaching the ranger cabin, but he kindly provided us with towels to dry off and we set about munching the fruit and biscuits that we’d brought for the trip. Eventually the rain fizzled into a drizzle, so we took our chance and after paying the 5 USD entrance fee post-entry, we walked a few kilometres to the main road, passing a few shy indigenous people carrying heavy gas canisters to their villages. The taxi back charged us 4 USD for the both of us to return, an honesty for which I was thankful, though I must reiterate the need to fix a price before getting in any taxi in Latin America.
If truth be told, Irma really got me enthusiastic for what was to come in the trip, and she waxed extremely lyrically about what she’d done in Costa Rica. Spending whole days with a stranger was easy and as she was more of the traveling traveler than the traveling party animal, we seemed to get on well. Notwithstanding, we aren’t totally boring and agreed to meet up for dinner and a few beers later that evening. One bar was pretty regular in its Saturday-nightness, but the other one open was a little strange, what with a few drag queens gyrating about and a lot of dolled-up ageing women from the US. As midnight chimed we both got on our way via a hug and exchanged Facebook details, another recurring theme of my trip. However, we have since kept in contact to give each other advice on where we’ve been traveling, so adding a virtual friend doesn’t always turn out to be a mere token gesture.
An active day of hiking done with a buddy also allowed for the taking of good photos, as my selfie skills still weren’t properly honed. If I didn’t have such a short time on my trip I might have stayed in Boquete to check out a few more waterfalls and hiking trails, as there are plenty. If time were ever to permit, I might return to the area, but the items listed under ‘unfinished travels business’ barely fit on the page by now, so we’ll have to wait and see.