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Panama: Boquete

Dreams of the River
The next day, we took an eight-hour bus ride, in what was to be the only air-conditioned bus of the whole trip, across Panama to David, where we switched to a school bus and headed up to the small mountain town of Boquete.  The tall man who sat next to me on the bus showed me a newspaper article featuring his wife’s hostel and tried to convince us to stay there.  We were noncommittal and he wasn’t pushy. 

When we disembarked from the bus at Boquete, a pretty woman told us about her hostel and we agreed to look at it.  She, of course, turned out to be the wife of the man we had met on the bus.  He had called her on his cell phone and told her there were three tourists on the way, and she should ambush us when the bus arrived.  The hostel, called "Suenos del rio" (dreams of the river) was indeed nice; it was set up as an apartment with two bedrooms and a shared kitchen and lounging area.  We were sold for sure when we noticed the back patio overlooking a rushing mountain stream.

 

                    

The Mirador
The goal for our stay in the town was to climb the long-dormant volcano that hovered above the city.  Shanu asked our hostel lady about it, and she said that it was seven hours up and five hours down.  Although a steep twelve-hour hike was tempting, we quickly modified our plans and decided to just walk on the roads that wound through the mountains.  So the next morning, after a slightly bizarre breakfast of bagels, chicken salad and coffee, we commenced our walk. 

The highland air was cool and fresh, and we soon found ourselves at a fork in the road.  A sign indicated that straight ahead, there was a lookout point, so we headed that way.  We walked a long way, past coffee plantations and resort style homes (one even had a Hummer in front), and finally decided we must have gone much more than the 1.7 km the sign had indicated.  Shanu asked somebody where the mirador was and he said we had passed it.  So we turned around.  We walked for a while and she asked another person.  He told us to keep going then turn left at the fork in the road. He then showed us the black squirrel that he kept in the little pouch at his side.  We played with the squirrel for a while, then went on our way. 

  

For Sale
We stopped at a grassy plot of land next to the mountain stream that was marked “se vende”—for sale.  We fantasized about owning such a beautiful spot in the world while we picnicked on oranges, granola bars and Pringles for lunch.  I can see how it happens that so many expats live in Central America.  They were probably just traveling through like us, saw a plot of land for sale and thought, why not?  Nobody sits in the U.S. and thinks, “Gee honey, why don’t we move to a small mountain town in Panama?  I’ll go to the Re/Max website and see if there’s any land for sale next to a clear, cool mountain stream.”  No, it’s when you’re there in the flesh that the place seduces you.

Chasing Waterfalls
We soon came to the fork in the road and went the other way—the way the people said to go, the opposite of the sign.  Along the way, we kept asking people where the mirador was, and they would gesture up the hill and say “veinte minutos”—twenty minutes.  The mirador  turned out to be like a mirage in the desert--no matter how much we trudged up the road, the mirador  was always veinte minutos  away.  

I call this phenomenon “chasing waterfalls” after the time Zac and I spent one torturously hot day in Vietnam riding bikes all over a village trying to find an alleged waterfall.  But chasing waterfalls or even miradores is not a bad phenomenon.  It too, is one of the joys of travel--a literal enactment of the cliché that it’s not the destination that matters, but the journey.  While chasing the waterfall in Vietnam, we had the pleasure of stumbling upon village life deep in a lush green valley that we would never have seen otherwise.  While chasing the mirador in Boquete, we met the man with the black squirrel and talked to many villagers.  We still had many beautiful views from unofficial lookout points and saw a little of life off the beaten path.

Food
We eventually quit chasing waterfalls because water was falling from the sky.  We walked back to our hostel in the warm afternoon rain, legs tired and feet sore.  We dropped our backpacks off at the hostel and set out again in search of a much deserved supper.  Our eating habits were pretty much the same throughout the trip: some bakery goods for breakfast or just snacks if we were in a hurry, granola bars and Pringles for lunch, and a good supper at a restaurant.  Our first night in Panama City we had eaten at an expensive Indian restaurant, in honor of Shanu who wanted to indulge in the pleasures of good food that couldn’t be had in her tiny mountain town in Honduras.  The second night we had a delicious vegetarian pizza, but it was the third night now, and we were hankering for a taste of the local fare. 

Ironically, in towns it is sometimes difficult to find restaurants serving local food.  If the people are going out to a restaurant, it is because they want to have something that they don’t eat at home every day.  Consequently, many of the restaurants were Pizzerias or served comidas rapidas—fast food such as hamburgers, hot dogs and sandwiches.  Many of the restaurants that do serve local food tend to be cafeteria style, which generally lack ambience.  We like places with at least some atmosphere and good, cheap local food. 

It took a while to find a restaurant that fit those simple specifications, but we finally found “Edgar Restaurant.”  It was a small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that didn’t even have a printed menu.  But we used our survival skills we had developed in China when all menus were unintelligible to us—we discretely looked at what the other people were eating.  It looked good.  We sat at a small wooden table and Shanu translated the choices offered by the waiter: chicken, beef, or ham.  Shanu and I ordered chicken, and Zac ordered ham.  Within minutes, we were sampling our first plates of Panamanian food, which later turned out to be the same as the food in Costa Rica.  The typical plate consisted of a meat, usually well-flavored in some sort of sauce; rice and beans, sometimes separate, sometimes mixed together; cooked vegetables, sometimes French fries; salad which was usually some shredded carrots and cabbage with a tomato wedge and the occasional cucumber slice; and of course, fried plantain.  This dish was delicious and reliable throughout the whole trip. Zac and Shanu typically washed it down with local beers while I focused on the mango or watermelon juice.

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