My 2013 trip to Panama included a little jaunt to the beach in Cocle province, on the country’s Pacific side. Is Cocle the “real” Panama? Who knows, since I’ve seen several different parts of the country and they’re all different. But let’s just say it showed me a whole other side of Panama.
My hosts put me up at the all-inclusive Royal Decameron Golf & Beach Resort and Villas, near a spot called Rio Hato on the Pacific coast. It’s about an hour and a half from downtown Panama City and two hours from the airport, depending on the traffic. This is a popular resort for package tours from Canada, so I’ll give a little description.
The resort stretches out along almost two kilometres of beach on a fairly calm stretch of the Pacific (despite its name, that ocean can be nasty). I was there in rainy season and not many people were in the water, even though it was around 30 degrees Celcius. But not to worry — they were having a good time splashing around in the beautiful string of aqua blue pools that run the length of the resort.
From spring till fall, when the North Americans are absent, Panama’s tourist industry keeps the lights on by hosting guests from places like Colombia and Venezuela. They can get here easily, and they don’t mind that it’s the rainy season. They just enjoy hitting the beach, lying by the pools, indulging in the free food and drinks and taking in the nightly Latin dancing shows. Rain — what rain?
Before I left, as usually befalls a visiting journalist, I was given a tour of the resort by a nice young Salvadorean woman named Carolina, That included a look at the different rooms, which are all pretty similar — nicely appointed but fairly basic, with tile floors to keep the sand down (it’s a beach resort, after all).
The resort is on a small hill, and while my room was at the top, the pricier ones are down at beach level. The walk up from the bottom can be a test if you’re out of shape. Happily, they run an army of little golf carts to get around the extensive system of paths, and you can get a ride on them if you ask. Those carts are really needed: this resort is so long it has three lobbies.
Cocle is a rising destination for gringos looking for summer or year-round homes; the highways are lined with posters advertising new developments on the beach, or in the suburbs of local towns. I didn’t get to see the new subdivisions, but I did see the villas you can buy at the Royal Decameron. They’re right on the golf course across the street from the beach resort, and they’re pretty nice.
The villas are fairly North American-looking (see below), with a self-contained apartment downstairs and two hotel rooms upstairs that can be rented separately. These were once cheap, but I’m told that prices have been going up, not only here but all over Panama. Apparently the little slowdown that occurred during the recession didn’t last long, and things are growing fast here once again.
There’s more to this area than the beach, though. I spent a full day exploring the local area, including a stop at a place I’d never expected — a small cashew factory, where I learned a lot about cashews, most of which was a complete surprise. First, while they come from trees, they actually grow at the end of what looks like a red pepper. The locals eat the fruit, or make juice out of it, and sell the cashews to us.
To make the nuts ready to shell, they’re boiled for 10 minutes in a small cauldron. Then they’re taken inside, where a very — very — patient young guy puts them in a little nut cracker and cracks them open, one by one, all day long (below). Apparently because of their shape, they can’t be mass-processed.
Then, two equally patient women send their days examining each one and polishing off any imperfections. No wonder they cost so much …
My guide and I also spent a few minutes in Penonome, the principal city of the region, which is a great place if you like local colour and local markets. It was a busy day, and the streets were crowded with cars and trucks and people buying their supplies at the little shops and markets. And like a lot of Panamanian towns, it was filled with colour, as you can see below.
We had lunch in a restaurant called El Meson de Santa Cruz, which was filled with classical paintings of the saints and other religious paraphernalia — very Spanish. While we were eating, a storm broke out, shaking the restaurant with the loudest thunder claps I’ve ever heard, as if a whole mountain had cracked in half.
Valle de Anton
Our last stop was the Valle de Anton, or Anton Valley, another spot where a lot of North Americans have decided to put down roots because of its temperate mountain climate and its proximity to Panama City. Viewed from an outlook on the highway coming in, It was a misty sight on this rainy day (see below).
The town itself was a modest affair, with a few stores, a fruit market, a souvenir shop and Ty’s Sports Grill, a bar run by Canadian expats that was decorated with the emblems of almost every North American sports team. Unfortunately, the Canadian owners were not in.
The last stop on the tour was a place called the Chorro El Macho, a waterfall on the mountainside that featured a rainforest zip line. Generally, I’m no thrill seeker when I travel, but I’d seen so many people take this ride, including kids and screamy little bikini models, that I figured I’d better do it al least once before I die.
Since the hour was late, we skipped the half-hour hike up the mountain to the launching platform, opting to drive up to a spot near the zip line and walk in. So the attendant and I, trussed up in our zip line harnesses, trekked up the gloomily beautiful mountain path to a small platform that looked over into a deep, misty chasm, cut only by a wire cable disappearing into the woods beyond.
And there I stood, about to do a zip line by myself in a dark, rainy forest with no one around even to see — not the way I’d envisioned this. Then I heard a cry from across the way.
“Otras personas?” I asked the guide. Other people? “Ci,” he said. “Ay una persona al otro lado?” I asked. Anybody at the other platform? “Ci,” he said. Reassured a little, I watched as he gave me my last-minute instructions — happily, in English. “Left hand here,” he said, putting my gloved hand on the strap hanging me from the zip line, “Right hand here — always behind you. When you get to those trees, pull down hard to stop.”
Then, more ominously, he showed what to do if you braked too soon and were left dangling halfway along the line — turn backward and pull yourself up, hand over hand. “Please don’t let that happen to me,” I thought. What embarrassment.
And then I was dangling from the line, held back from the yawning chasm only by the grip of my right hand. “I’m here,” I thought. “I might as well do it.” And then I let go, and I was hurtling down the line, feeling the wind whip my face, watching the trees whizz by on all sides as the platform loomed up on the other side. I reached the trees and pulled down hard with my right hand. And like magic I slowed to a perfect stop right over the platform, where the group ahead of me was still waiting. “Perfect,” said one of them. Victory.
The second line was much steeper than the first, so the guides held us back with a rope strung over our shoulders. And halfway down they stopped us, leaving us dangling over El Macho waterfall itself, churning and boiling away below us, before letting us descend to the platform. Pulling out my pocket camera, I shot some video. Unfortunately, with only one ungloved hand, I couldn’t focus properly — wasted opportunity.
The next day I was on my way back to the Panama City airport and the five-hour flight to Canada. In six days I’d cruised the Panama Canal; seen the ancient ruins of the original Panama City and the old fort at Portobelo, where Columbus landed; rocked out at the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown Panama City; gone birdwatching at the famous Pipeline Road, just outside the city; checked out trendy clubs in the Casco Viejo; enjoyed beach life in Cocle; and done my first zip line ride in the Valle de Anton. I had help, admittedly, but I could have done it all myself, and still had a really memorable holiday.
So, why don’t more people know about Panama?