Landlocked in Ohio since leaving Kauai Hawaii in 2006, we began looking at retirement destinations that would bring us back to the big water we sorely missed. Because of the extreme costs associated with living near the Pacific in any U.S. state we decided to look at other countries. There are many options to weigh, so we started a list and did our virtual homework over several months. Our short list included Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.
Come journey with us, Mariah & By
We have beautiful Boquete in the rearview. So why snake pictures? No particular reason, except it seemed odd that we were greeted by the fellow on top, a lovely coral snake on one of our first days in Boquete, and the fellow on the bottom, a fer de lance, on our very last evening there. The fer de lance is one of the most venomous & lethal pit vipers in the world, and this one was right outside our front door. Did we leave it alone? Oh boy, howdy.
This will be my last post from Panama as Mariah and I have decamped for Medellin Colombia.(visit soon at byallmeanstravel.com) I feel compelled to reflect on our (very short) stay in Boquete, and to share a few thoughts. I don’t wish to disparage the quaint, quiet, lush, and lazy little town we called home for almost a year in total, but there are some things we’d like to share. Yes, comments are not only welcome, they’re encouraged.
Everyone should see the Panama Canal before they pass through to the other side. What’s this got to do with Boquete three hundred miles away? It seems, metaphorically speaking, that Panama is a transit point not only for the world’s commercial traffic from ocean to ocean, but for one’s passage to the next adventure as well. We don’t regret for a minute our time in western Panama: we made wonderful (hopefully life-long) friends; we enjoyed several relaxing and inspiring moments there; and we learned a whole lot about ourselves, which is the most valuable lesson anyone have have.
We saw spectacular sunrises & sunsets. The ones we witnessed on Kauai were breathtaking, especially the green flash the locals told us about, but Panamanian sunrises & sunsets rival even those in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Gorgeous.
We saw amazing birds, migratory and otherwise. Indeed, the wildlife we were able to spot and enjoy were like no other we’d seen anywhere. Interesting, too, how the selection and variety changed all the time. When we first arrived, flocks of parakeets were a daily, predictable sight. Then they vanished, as if they’d never existed. Likewise Kingbirds, Palm Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, thrushes and Squirrel Cuckoos arrived, then departed. Especially once the windy season arrived in force, the birds seemed to take shelter elsewhere. All but the tenacious little hummers. They stuck it out no matter what.
Contrasts can seem cruel
Home Sweet Home
We’ll not forget the amazing contrasts in Panama, especially in and around Boquete. As pictured above, outrageous affluence appears next door to grinding poverty; kids with proscribed & difficult lives sit idly by while their parents toil in coffee fields alongside wealthy, carefree gringos with all the time in the world for a leisurely stroll through those same fields.
Then there’s the weather contrast, of course, and the primary reason we chose Panama in the first place. Number one shot above, Bocas del Mar, ahhhhh!; number two picture, outside our Ohio condo not long afterward. Brrrrrr! as Mariah says: no mas nieve para mi!
We learned a lot about ourselves living in Boquete. We don’t like the Green Acres life, as much as we thought we might: Chickens are basically stupid creatures; bananas grow everywhere, and we do get tired of eating them; as much as someone wanted a pet sloth, it ain’t happenin.’ But thanks D&E for letting us stay at Finca Luz. Farm of Light certainly enlightened us, even if it cost you a chicken or two. Sorry about that. We’re city people through and through, as much as we tried to deny it. We love the symphony, museums, movie theaters, great libraries, public transport. Okay, Starbucks, I admit it. I love Starbucks. Sue me.
Last thoughts on our stay in Boquete, pure speculation, but I’ll put it out there anyway. Boquete, possibly Panama itself, needs more revenue.Sure the Canal spits off a billion or so annually, and politicians skim off their fair share, and there’s no transparency, yadda, yadda, yadda. Sounds like the same complaints we hear from up north. I don’t want to piss anybody off, but I have a strong suspicion that folks are shirking their responsibility. As one who firmly believes that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, I believe a lot more could be done by my fellow expats, revenue wise. Kudos to those who’ve pitched in to make the city a better place, I take nothing from you. Keep it up. It must feel like a losing battle at times. But without sufficient revenue, neglect becomes endemic.
Boquete is a fine example of this. The town could be a jewel of a place, lush, green, structured and tidy. It is not. Boquete could have neat and tidy streets. Verdant city parks. It could have sidewalks! Street signs! Sadly, Boquete is decrepit, with little attention to order and its infrastructure has decayed so badly what’s there hardly qualifies as adequate. It’s a shame. What’s the answer? Aside from falling back on the old bromide that it’s ‘a first-world problem,’ I’d suggest more $$$$, in the form of taxes.
I’ve not researched this thoroughly, so it’s likely useless opinion on my part, but a steady, predictable system of taxation & associated accounting of it might be just the ticket. One of the first things we encountered in Boquete was the proliferation of small businesses that operate solo efectivo. Not naming names, but it seems to me there’s only one purpose for a cash-only endeavor, and it ain’t environmental concern about using too much plastic. I believe it’s to disguise earnings, and maximize income. Okay, I’ll step off my horse. But one reason this rant appears now is that we’ve seen what can happen when revenue is sufficient for a modern, people-friendly city. It’s happening in Medellin. The absence of the challenges cited above are among the reasons we’ve moved away.
This is sounding like a whiny bitch fest, but there’s another aspect of it that comes to mind and then I’ll quit. This is just us, irritable, disenchanted gringos etc., but it’s another reason we won’t miss Boquete very much. It’s about a few of the very same gringos we encountered there, and the apparent reason they chose Panama for their retirement hidey-hole. When we decided to move to Boquete a few years ago our Norte Americano neighbors asked if we were afraid of the Panamanians, fearful of the local folks who’d surely molest us, pester us, rob us blind with gringo-bingo etc. Who knew we’d encounter these things from gringos? During our short but illustrious stay we met wonderful, caring, compassionate, fun people, folks we cherish and hope to keep up with. And we met some real stinkers. Not once but twice we received rather rude and unnecessarily avaricious treatment from landlords. Especially our last one at the Country Club. With all the cleaning fees, three different fumigations, an exciting afternoon marked by a gas explosion, defective appliances, constant power outages and the final insulting accusation that we stole bedsheets for pity sakes, we felt like unwanted vagrants, not something a renter needs while shelling out $1,200 bucks a month. BTW, anyone considering a rental at BCC, caveat emptor. Contact me and we’ll chat. Oh yes, a third landlord incident, this one involving only a potential arrangement, but still. After making inquiries to rent a certain place at The Springs, we were told in no uncertain terms that the unit was not available to the likes of us, because we were not dedicated Trumpsters. True story. The refusal stemmed from a Facebook post in which I was critical of ‘he who shall not be named.’ Evidently he can ‘say what’s on his mind,’ but the privilege does not extend to peons such as myself. Thanks, Dan, I hope your unit stays empty forever. I’m done now.
Anyway, we’re out of Boquete, now happily ensconced in Medellin. We’ve not been here long, just a week or less, but the difference is night and day. All the best to our friends in Boquete, we wish you well. Drop by the new site when you get a chance. byallmeanstravel.com will be up and running soon. Stay safe. Thanks for all you did for us. And beware of the gringos!
Fun fact: The Nazis contributed to the building & maintenance of the Panama Canal. True story. The crane pictured above was once used by Nazi Germany in the 40s, and during the Second World War, to move large, heavy objects such as ever-larger armament & munitions. It was used extensively in Germany to help build trains & railroads, and similarly weighty stuff. So what in the wide world is this massive crane doing ensconced near the Pedro Miguel Locks on the Panama Canal?
The Nazis lost the war, of course, and their loss was Panama’s gain, eventually. This crane, called ‘The Titan,’ aka ‘Herman the German’ and other assorted items of war booty were confiscated and shipped to various places across the world. The crane saw service in Long Beach California until 1996 when it was sold to the Panama Canal Authority for $1.00, with the proviso that it be used only there, and for the maintenance and fortification of the Canal. One of the crane’s functions is lifting the gates at each set of locks. Each gate on the old Canal weighs upward of 700 tons, and they must be lifted on a regular basis for cleaning, sealing, patching & replacement. Thanks to the Nazis, the task is somewhat easier. One would think such a massive device with all its functionality and hard metal would fetch more than a dollar, but that was the price, and that’s what it happened. Thanks Adolph Hitler, your service is noted.
Speaking of notorious individuals, here’s the home of another rather infamous fellow, not quite equivalent in misdeeds to the Nazis, but reprehensible in his behavior nonetheless. The prison above is the current abode of a fellow named Manuel Noriega, one-time dictator of Panama and scourge of more than one U.S. president. (BTW, for a fascinating look at the Noriega years, and the violence and corruption extant in Panama then, read In The Time of the Tyrants.
Here are a few more facts about the world’s best shortcut: In 1977 the Carter-Torrijos treaty transferred ownership & operation of the Canal to Panama. According to the treaty, as of December 31st 1999 the U.S. ceased operating the Panama Canal, with the stipulation that in the event of a military emergency the U.S. would have full access.
Draft limit for ships: When Gatun Lake level is below 85 feet, draft is limited to 40 feet for all vessels.
Cost of the Canal: About $380,000,000, equivalent to nine billion dollars and change today.
Currently, Panama Ports Co. subsidiary of the Chinese company Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd. owns exclusive rights to operate both ends of the Panama Canal. Hutchison-Whampoa Ltd. is owned by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing.
Everyone loves pictures of ships, right? One reason to take a transit tour of the Canal, as we did recently, is to marvel at the ships and their tonnage passing through the channel alongside your own tiny tour boat. Here are a few of the mighty ships we saw, and information about them. These shots were taken January 14th 2017.
The MOL Bellweather: Built in 2015, the container ship is listed at a dead weight of 120,000 tons. The Bellweather is registered in Hong Kong. At 1105 feet (337 meters) long, 157 feet (48.5 meters) wide it must use the new, wider locks. Today, as this is written, the Bellweather is located approximately 100 nautical miles east northeast of Ningbo, China.
Maersk Bogor Singapore, built in 2009, is listed at 135,000 tons. At 730 feet (223 meters) long, and 109 (32 meters) wide, this ship, too must transit the new locks. Today, Maersk Bogor is in port in Algeciras Spain.
Built in 2016, CMA CGM Missouri is 103,000 tons. At 985 feet (300 meters) long and 109 feet (48 meters) wide the Missouri must use the new, wider locks. At this writing the Missouri was located 120 nautical miles east of Port Elizabeth South Africa, headed home to Singapore.
Veendam, built in 1996 and refitted in 2012 weighs (just) 57,000 tons. At 719 feet (219 meters) long, 101 feet (31 meters) wide, Veendam is able to use the older locks. The ship carries a crew of 568, a passenger capacity of 1,350 and can cruise at 20 knots. At this writing, Veendam is located at Port of Spain Trinidad.
The Kaishuu ‘Hopper-Dredger’ is one of the smaller commercial ships transiting the Canal. Built in 2002, Kaishuu is 25,900 tons dead weight. The vessel is 518 feet (58 meters) long, and 92 feet (28 meters) wide, easily able to pass through the 110 foot wide older locks. Flagged in Luxembourg, the Kaishuu is currently located offshore at Buenaventura Colombia.
Our transit of the Panama Canal just happened to occur on my wife’s birthday. No, I won’t tell which birthday, but suffice to say that we had a great time going through the locks, and we recommend the tour to anyone. We used Ancon Expeditions to secure a spot on a tour boat, and they took care of all details. The Ancon folks picked us up at our hotel, drove us to the boat at the end of the Amador Causeway and met us at day’s end there to return us to the hotel. Cost of full transit was $230/per person. One recommendation is to book a partial tour. The partial transit passes through both Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, then passengers depart near Gamboa for a quick drive back to Panama City. Cost of this tour is currently $195/per person.
Refit in 2015, the Island Princess is 965 feet (295 meters) long and 106 feet (32 meters) wide. The vessel carries 2,200 guests and a crew of 900. Currently, Island Princess has transited back through the Canal and is underway to Puntarenas Chile. No details as to dimensions, speed or date of construction of the family etc., as this is proprietary information. Current positions: three back home in Iowa City, and two in Boquete, Panama.
The Carribean side of the Panama Canal, and the Gatun Locks, center around the city of Colon, titled thus for a fellow named Cristoforo Colon, or as most Norte Americanos refer to him, Christopher Columbus. After a nine hour passage through the canal, we left the tour boat in Colon and were bused back to Panama City after a great day filled with Nazis, Panamanian tyrants, mega-tonnage container ships and much history of the world’s best shortcut.
More posts are pending on the great Panama adventure, and yet more as we prepare to depart Panama and move to Medellin, Colombia. Also, a name change is in the offing for this excellent addition to your travel reading pleasure. Soon we’ll be blogging at byallmeanstravel.com. Stay tuned.
One might think a city of 3 million souls would be grimy, noisy, confusing and generally dispiriting to inhabit. Medellin Colombia is proof that the opposite can be true. Disclaimer: we spent just five days in Medellin (pronounced Med-a-Jeen BTW) so we’re not experts by any means, but what we saw of Medellin enchanted us.
2 forms of public transport: World-Class Metro system; Free bikes (yes, free)
Please don’t tell anyone about Medellin, because we’re sure the Chamber of Commerce wouldn’t want the world to have this information and start a flood of immigrants, but this city does NOT match its reputation. And what is that rep? We’d heard the narrative: ‘dangerous,’ ‘drug-cartels,’ violent, anti-gringo, dirty, noisy, poverty-riddled etc. etc. Sure, there are parts of Medellin to avoid, especially at night, or drunk, or if your name is Donald Trump, or you’re soliciting for drugs and/or sex, or doing some other kind of criminal enterprise. Of course there are. So don’t do those things…duh! In fact, according to several websites, the homicide rate in Medellin has fallen more than 80% since the end of the cartel era. A fellow named Pablo Escobar and his minions were eliminated in the early 90s, and the turnaround in Medellin has been nothing short of remarkable.
Street performer in El Poblado; Parque de las Luces, ciudad central
City Parks have free WiFi…View from Envigado…Street Market Flowers
More street vendors & tiendas. Gotta love the ‘Super Todo Mickey Mouse’ market
The first thing we noticed about Medellin was how clean the city appears to be. Even in the poorer, more down at the heels estratos & barrios the utter lack of street litter and trash was remarkable. We were told that it’s partly a cultural thing, but mostly a point of civic pride. People tend to dress conservatively, (we saw no locals wearing shorts and/or sandals, for example) and there was no evidence of the slovenly apparel commonly seen in US cities. Also, many people told us the city is oriented around family & kids, with several initiatives, like the Parque Explora, and the wonderfully named Parque de los Pies Descalzos, (barefoot park). Proyecto Buen Comienza is a wonderful initiative that gives Medellin’s kids an early boost in education and self-discovery.
One reason the streets of Medellin are so tidy: street cleaners are on duty daily. Parking monitors help keep neighborhood areas free of abandoned and/or unattended vehicles.
Parque Explora, where kids can…be eaten by a T-Rex! Buen Comienza is there for ninos
So…what are the downsides to living in Medellin? Well, it is a big city, of 3 million people at last count. There’s traffic, including too many ‘motos’ to count, the motorcyclists that our taxi driver Carlos referred to as ‘hormigas’ or ‘ants,’ bikers that whip between cars, weaving like crazy people through stopped traffic and missing side mirrors by inches. Pedestrians often wander into roadways where Colombian drivers seem always to yield to them, and folks dodge other cars and trucks like an intricate ballet, often at top speed. Another challenge for expats is that Spanish is spoken in Medellin, and it is not an option. Very few Colombians we met and interacted with spoke English, so guess what? They expected us to speak espanol. It’s a novel prospect, I know, but an energizing one for us as we have every intention of learning the language. We consider it rude to expect them to speak English, and sad that we never acquired bilingual status in America! I’ll now step off my soap box, thank you.
The EPM Library in ciudad central…System map of the Metro…Mall SantaFe’
The EPM Library is a jewel of a resource in downtown Medellin on Parque de las Luces. The library is open to all, filled with books, magazines, newspapers from all over and, again, an entire section devoted to kids. From its reputation as ‘most dangerous city in the world’ in 1992, to 2014 winner of the Lee Kwan Yew award for city excellence, Medellin is a rising star in South America & elsewhere. With world-class infrastructure, a major symphony, Parque Botero, dedicated to the works of city resident and artist Fernando Botero, and the new Metrocable system built primarily to assist poorer workers of Medellin to return to their hillside homes, this city will enchant you, too.
Metrocable system high above Medellin. This transport system was built to integrate all neighborhoods of the city, and to assist poorer folks returning uphill from work in the city. Most local people ride for free.
Medellin Colombia is a city that works for all. Just don’t tell anyone about it. Thanks.
The Panama Canal officially opened on August 15th 1914. The USS Ancon seen above was the first vessel to transit the canal, on August 14th, the day before, to test the locks’ operations. Since its opening to commercial traffic more than 100 years ago, the Panama Canal has seen the passage of nearly one million vessels, and today averages more than 14,000 ships per year, and 40 per day. Here are a few statistics:
ΔFinished by Americans in 1914 after a failed French effort begun in 1881
Δ More than 30,000 died building the canal, most from yellow fever & malaria
Δ Longest ship to transit: Marcona Prospector at 973 feet
Δ Highest fee paid: $840,000
Δ Time to transit: approximately 8 to 10 hours
Δ Ships wait on average 4 days to enter the Canal. Some request entry up to two years in advance.
*As of 2015 prior to the opening of the Super Panamax locks
Many people don’t realize that transiting the Canal from Pacific to Atlantic (Caribbean) side, a ship is traveling Northwest. When we moved to Panama we had a lot of getting used to the idea that it’s an East-West country, not unlike Tennessee. The chart above shows this orientation very well.
1-Locks at Miraflores; 2-A car vessel in the locks (this ship held more than 5,000 cars);3-The same vessel; 4-Miraflores Locks visitor center & museum.
No vessel, regardless how small, may transit the Panama Canal without a canal captain. The fellow above was captain of the Pacific Queen. He had to board a canal captain to accompany him through the passage. The fellow (named Felix, and not shown) mostly watched Captain Alejandro during our transit. Alejo had more than 14 years at the helm, and ‘more transits than I remember,’ he said.
For an in depth understanding of the Panama Canal, its construction, political & economic impact, engineering & administrative staff and the various challenges and difficulties encountered, read David McCullough’s definitive work, The Path Between The Seas. In the book, McCullough refers to the biggest challenge facing the French, the obsession of its chief engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps to build a sea-level canal. Messieur de Lesseps was the hero of France for pushing through a sea-level canal at Suez. He saw no reason the same thing wouldn’t work in Panama, and he was not to be dissuaded. De Lesseps scorned those who insisted on a series of locks, blindly pursuing his sea-level vision. In the meantime, disease was ravaging construction crews. At one point in the late nineteenth century the French team was losing 40 men per day to yellow fever and malaria.
Ships transit the Panama Canal under their own power. The so called mules, special trains with guide cables as show above, do not tug or drag ships along. They assist the canal captain in keeping ships aligned in the canal.
Δ Each lockage uses 52 million gallons of fresh water, all of it from Gatun Lake
Δ Existing locks are 110 feet wide, thought to be double what might be needed when the canal was proposed. New locks on the Super Panamax side are 160 feet wide. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s existing commercial fleet can use the Super Panamax Locks.
Δ Material is still dredged daily from the canal. This material is being distributed throughout Panama City and Colon for additional earthen levies and pedestrian causeways
Part three of The World’s Best Shortcut will arrive soon. Look for yet more astonishing numbers, weird facts about the Panama Canal (including a Nazi crane, and a two hour passage by hydrofoil!) and the background of its existence and future use. Thanks for reading.