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Two Peace Corps Volunteers Return to Panama
by Bud Keith, Steve Spangler

Panama City

Steve Spangler and Bud Keith went to Panama in March, 2002. Although Bud has revisited six times, this was Steve's first return since he left in 1966.

We'd like to share some of what we did, and hope our comments are helpful for others planning a trip of their own.

Friday, March 15, 2002

We flew on Continental Airlines. Got a very good rate from Washington DC, $505, through a travel agent who uses a consolidator, Smart Travel, 866-735-9464. Continental provides meals at mealtimes. We learned this the hard way. We grabbed a light breakfast, and then were given another light breakfast on the plane to Houston. Then during our layover we had lunch in the airport. Then on the second leg another meal was served. When we sat down to dinner in the hotel that evening, Bud felt like crap.

When we cleared customs in Tocumen, dozens of men were hustling us for taxis. We agreed to share a minibus from the airport into town. We paid $25 for the two of us, and made only one intermediate stop. Ten days later we paid $17 going directly back out in a taxi.

We stayed the first night at the Las Vegas Hotel for $48. It's a block behind El Panama, the old Hilton. It has hot showers and kitchenettes in every room with a very good restaurant. If you give it a try, ask for a room in the back. We faced the street and had traffic noise all night long.

Saturday, March 16

A recently finished PCV named Shannon, with her Panamanian husband Alfredo, drove us around town -- Panama La Vieja, including a new museum; then down to Chorrillo and the Iglesia San Jose with its golden alter; the flat arch, at the entrance of an old convent with a statue of the friar who introduced bananas to the New World.

We finished our tour with lunch at Las Pencas, a restaurant along the modernized causeway along the entrance to the Canal.

Shannon is struggling to start a personal travel service and does a great job. You might contact her at shannonginn@hotmail.com.

In Panama there are blue phones all over the place, even in the rural areas. You can buy blue phone cards in most shops and from machines in many public places. It is the easiest way to call anywhere, even the states. Very efficient and very economical. Many calling cards you buy in the States allow long distance calls from Panama.

On Saturday afternoon, we flew from Panama City to David from the new airport at the old Albrook Air Force Base.

We had reserved a Budget Rental car for David in the States. A man was waiting for us at the airport to take us to the rental office in David. We received a late model Mazda and it was just like renting in the States, although it took three times as long to get through the paperwork. Five days rent cost about $250 with all the taxes and insurance.

The Inter-American Highway is now four lanes divided. The road to Boquete was also good. Arrived without problem in about 50 minutes. One can't help but enjoy the wonderful spring-like climate, warm days and cool nights. At the Panamonte Hotel, $42 a night, we enjoyed cocktails in front of a nice fireplace. Bud had good steak for dinner, Steve had great trout almandine. Again, our room faced the street with nighttime traffic, but less than in Panama City. The room had a hot water shower, but the hot and cold water didn't seem to be mixed.

Sunday, March 17

After breakfast we walked around the hotel in both misty rain and full sunshine. The picture above is of the backyard of the Panamonte. We saw a full rainbow going completely across the valley.

We took the car on two circular drives on the side of Volcan Baru. One followed a 12-inch water pipeline to irrigate the higher fields. We passed many well dressed local Indians walking to church.

We stopped at Cafe Ruiz and bought some very good coffee that Bud is sipping on while this is being written. After a good cup there, we toured Mi Jardin es Su Jardin, where Bud and Larry Blount had visited in 1967. It's not to be missed if you visit Boquete.

We had lunch in the cafe of the folkloric museum, looking out at the tree tops. Then we wandered into a rental office and met with Dan who is selling Valle Escondido, a fancy gated community built for American retirees but selling as many to Panamanians.

Dan didn't plan to talk to us because Bud looked like he was Amish and wouldn't be buying real estate in Boquete. On Dan's suggestion, we drove to the mountainside suburb of Santa Lucia to look at quite a number of houses with magnificent views. On the way back to town we followed another long circular drive with the last five miles or so down a long dirt road. There were lots of Indians on all drives. They live in row shacks while they pick coffee.

Monday, March 18

We left eternal spring and had an easy drive down to David. It seemed mighty hot and humid while we were looking for Steve's old house in the Barriada San Jose. We think we found it along with the school he helped build. Looked around the adjoining port town of Pedregal which is now a little seaport with a few international sailboats. Went to visit Feria de San Jose de David, 47th version. It was mostly exhibits promoting government agencies and major industry, with few visitors in the early morning. It consisted of about four enclosed air conditioned buildings, and the rest under roof but outside.

On our way out of town we stopped at Pricesmart (Costco) and bought shirts and bottled water. Just like Price Club/Costco as we know it in the States. We then drove up to Volcan in about 55 minutes.

In Volcan, we met Judy Pimental, a current volunteer who was in the final weeks of her service in Panama. Judy told us about life as a PCV in the 21st Century. Most fun, Judy was our age, mas o menos.

We also visited 1960's PCV, John Fillis and his wife, Mechi.

John runs San Benito school in Volcan, mainly for poor children. We joined them for dinner along with soon leaving volunteer, Judy, at Dos Rios restaurant. Food was Italian and nothing special.

We stayed that night at Don Tavo Hotel. $36. It was only okay. It had decent beds and a hot shower, but sat right on the main drag. We were awakened by two gun shots at about 3:00 in the morning. We stayed awake for a while, but there were no other noises -- no barking dogs, sirens, or other commotion. Just someone letting off a little late-night energy with a pistol.

Tuesday, March 19

Steve spent an hour at the Internet Cafe at Don Tavo hotel. It cost him 75 cents for a fairly fast connection. There was no problem getting into Hotmail to check with the wife and kids.

We met John to tour coffee fincas that belong to him and the school. His farm manager, Alexis, drove us an hour and a half to coffee finca on the Costa Rican border. We saw lots of old road, and much under reconstruction. John had just built a new house for the farm management, and upgraded facilities for Indian laborers. All freshly painted. San Benito sells to Starbuck's in Japan at 5 times world market price.

From the finca we drove to a little store in Costa Rica. There was no border control.

Back at the San Benito School we toured the school, consisting of 4 classroom buildings, 1 dormitory for students, and several warehouses and dairy building.

John collects donated products for re-sale from Land's End, Proctor and Gamble, etc. Local poor folks get good products for very little money, and John has a major source of funds for the school.

From the school we drove up the mountain about an hour to Guadalupe, a small village outside of Cerro Punta.

We stayed at the Los Quetzales Hotel. The hotel was under renovation, and had no signage so we didn't find it easily. We were given a small but comfortable room for about $50. It faced downhill across some landscaping towards the river. We enjoyed a beer and buttered popcorn in the comfortable lounge/bar, and then enjoyed a very nice dinner.

Wednesday, March 20

After breakfast we went on a rain forest exploration that is provided free to hotel guests. We were driven in a jeep several miles up a really rough road to the first of four fully equipped cabins in the rain forest. It was very cool with light rain. At this point, the guides provided rain gear and necessary boots. After getting covered, we climbed up to a higher cabin where Bud hung out for an hour while Steve went on a muddy trail hike with Abel, a loquacious evangelist who discussed life, politics and morality in Panama.

After checking out of Los Quetzales, we drove to the Cerro Punta hotel for lunch. The food wasn't very good, there weren't any other diners, and the place was full of flies.

On the way back down the mountain to Volcan, we stopped at Cielo Sur Bed and Breakfast. We had to drive carefully up their driveway because of the chihuahuas attacking the car. It seemed like a very nice and modern bed and breakfast. It was owned by Janet and Glenn Lee, well connected to some of Bud's friends. It looked like a good place to stay instead of Don Tavos, but we had been warned off by Janet who said there is often serious fog in the evening.

A mile or so further down the road, we think we found the former site of Cielito Lindo, home of Glenn Lewis and former PCV wife Virginia who were washed away in a sudden flood in the early 80's.

Back in Volcan we Checked in to the Dos Rios Hotel. It was hardly worth $52. We had a small cabin with little traffic noise but there was a baby crying at night in a nearby house.

We met John and Mechi for dinner at El Bambito. It's a fancy resort where Bud had stayed in 1992 with a group of ex-PCVs and their families on a tour run by former PCV John Allensworth.

Thursday, March 21

We were up at 5:30 to drive to the David airport. Car check in went smoothly, and plane to Bocas left on time.

In Bocas, the taxi to the Bahia Hotel, cost all of 50 cents per person.

We met a volunteer from Bud's group, Luther Tucker and his wife Cordie who just happened to be in town. We talked about spending the day on the water, and the Bahia Hotel owner, Jose Tomas, recommended a boat owner named Eddy.

In his fast and well equipped launch, Eddy took us to Coral Key for swimming and lobster at Adonis Restaurant.

After the best spiny lobster, we went to Bastimento Island and walked across to the ocean side of the island to Red Frog beach. We found several red frogs, and a couple of unfinished houses in the woods. Red frogs are very poisonous and found no where else in the world.

On the way back to Bocas town, we stopped at Isla Solarte to visit a new bed and breakfast. A lot of development is being planned and several houses have already been constructed. It could be a nice place if they maintain it.

On the small island of Carneras, a few minutes by boat from Bocas town, Luther was repairing his ocean-going sailboat, so we stopped there for drinks.

Later Luther took Steve and Bud by dingy back to Bocas where we looked for a plaque commemorating PCPF for funding the building of an information kiosk by ANCON, a national conservation agency. It was there ten years ago, but has been torn out of the concrete base and no one at the nearby restaurant seemed to know anything about it.

After getting cleaned up we met Luther and Cordie at Ultimo Refugio restaurant for dinner. It's owned by an Argentinean/Italian couple who were sailing around the world and decided to stop and run a restaurant in Bocas. They're doing a fine job. He is chef, she the waitress.

Friday, March 22

We were up early, paid hotel $44, and had to hustle to catch an early flight. While we were waiting at the airport, we met a former volunteer who served in Liberia during the 60's. (Steve knew Liberia because he had worked there with AID in the 1970's.) He lives in New Hampshire and just came down to buy one of the lots on Isla Solarte for his retirement home.

Since we had wanted to see a lot of Panama in a relatively short time, instead of spending many hours on very nice buses, we had decided to fly around the country. The three in-country flights cost us a total of $130. The planes seemed to be fairly new, and everything was run efficiently. All flights were on time.

Back in Panama City we checked in at Costa Del Sol Hotel, a block from the old Panama Hilton and Continental hotels. At about $56 a night it's a good deal for a very nice and convenient place to stay.

After checking in, we caught a cab and met Peace Corps Panama Director, Janice, for lunch at Cafe Boulevard Balboa, and caught up on current philosophy of Peace Corps.

She took us back to the heavily guarded Peace Corps office in a modern high rise where we spent a few hours chatting with current crop of volunteers. It was amazing to overhear conversations about laptop computers, cell phones, and home visits.

That evening we met some of Bud's friends for drinks at their home, then went to Siete Mares for fanciest dinner ever in Panama, still not too expensive.

After dinner Steve and Bud went to the Hotel Panama to meet Dave Long and Tim Dowling. Both were volunteers in Bud's group, 1965-67. Totally by coincidence, they had flown in that evening to spend a week or so in Bocas where Dave has purchased an island. We shared a couple of hours of beers and war stories, mainly about the outrageous and hilarious behavior of unnamed volunteers of past eras. We also learned about the tree house that Dave is going to build on his island.

Saturday, March 23

We enjoyed breakfast in the Costa del Sol Hotel's fantastic rooftop restaurant. From there it was off in a cab to Visited Mi Pueblito, a fairly new cultural center at the base of Ancon Hill in the old Zone. It has three sections, Kuna, Afroantillano and Interiorano replicas of villages. Kind of bare, with few other tourists. We bought some tagua nut carvings and a few other souvenirs.

Then we explored Casco Viejo. For the most part, it was deserted except for the blocks around the President's Palace, also called Heron Palace. There we had the chance to observe some of the palace guard apprehending some kids who were climbing up the sea wall from boats below.

In Plaza Concordia, a modern shopping center near our hotel, we looked in Gran Morrison (which can be traced back to Mr. Lewis's store) and a few other stores, and then had typical Panamanian food at Jimmy's, a cafeteria-style restaurant on Via Espana. While walking back to Costa Del Sol, we wandered through the Hotel Panama which is undergoing major rejuvenation. When we returned to our hotel we found it filled with Central American soccer teams of over-active teenagers. The rooftop pool was still refreshing.

We wanted to do something special for our last evening so we went to Las Tinajas restaurant. The comida tipica was really good, but we were very disappointed by the almost total lack of service. The entertainment we had been anticipating turned out to be only about 20 minutes of bailes tipicas.

Throughout Panama City there was a lot of traffic, and local businesses were jumping. Steve noted that traffic seemed less hectic than 36 years ago. However, there didn't seem to be much going on tourism-wise.

Sunday, March 24

Another breakfast on rooftop with a very drunk gentleman serenading us.

Our cab driver showed up on time for our $17 trip to airport, Flights from Panama and Newark were uneventful and both on time. Steve's wife Barb met us at National airport, and Maryland beat Connecticut during the NCAA men's basketball tournament as we drove up to Bud's house.

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