Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Panama Isn't It

A lot of US citizens expatriate to Latin American countries. On-line sources and magazines which specialize in advice for would-be expats point toward countries like Costa Rica, Panama and others as ideal locations for US people to relocate.

Maybe, but I think they exaggerate.

They used to extol the economic virtues of Panama, how we from the USA could live for less, or live a much better life for the same amount as here in the USA. That's no longer the case in Panama. Enough ex-pats have moved into Panama that the entire economic system there, at least for land and houses, is skewed toward the rich. Some of the local people we spoke to feel the pain of that shift.

The web sites will tell you that most people in Panama speak some English. WRONG. In the cities, some people speak excellent English. Let me tell you of our foray into the country.

We arrived in Panama City and took a cab (for $40, and without negotiation) to the Saba Hotel. I don't mind a small hotel, but it isn't the place to make a first impression to Panama City. Though it is across from a small park, the hotel is in an older part of the city. The local restaurants are small, but local, and the people in the neighborhood speak little or no English. Which is perfect for me - I speak little or no Spanish.

As I said in the post about visiting Costa Rica, and also in the one on our Ecuador trip, I speak enough Spanish to be polite, but not enough to communicate well.

This is the view from the window of our Saba Hotel room, and it isn't much.

So I'm apparently bad about making plans. I worked with a company that was great when we visited Costa Rica, but my demands for this trip were overly difficult for them. And, apparently, for me.

I needed to meet with someone in the Coronado district of Panama, so I made arrangements for a nice hotel in the area. I thought I did. I also made arrangements for a driver from Panama City to Coronado.

Here's where things go bad.

Seems that November 3rd is Independence Day in Panama and the 4th is flag day, or something. So we arrived just in time for a four-day holiday weekend in Panama. All of Panama City drove to the beach for the weekend and the beach is in ... Coronado.

Yes, the trip that would normally take an hour and a half took about four hours. Fortunately, Luis, our driver, spoke good English and he was patient with my Spanish.

After four hours of seeing the Panamanian countryside, I no longer thirsted for the beauty of the tropical country. Panama looks very much like Costa Rica, which makes sense because geography knows nothing of political boundaries.

At this point I wanted (needed) to cancel my planned road trip across the country from Coronado to Boquete. Enough of the pleasure drive!

Wait, it gets worse. When we finally arrived where I thought we had reservations - we didn't. There was a conversation with the planning company where I mentioned a different hotel and they said they didn't work with them. I said to leave it alone. They thought I meant that I'd take care of the other hotel and now we were in Coronado with no place to stay. And all of Panama City migrated to the beach and filled the hotels. To be fair, the hotel was willing to let us have a room - for $165 USD for the night - apiece.

I should have taken it.

Luis needed to get back to Panama City, but he asked a cab driver if he could take us to the Cocle Hotel in Cocle, which is where I wanted to stay but didn't arrange. The driver told Luis he could and would, but needed to pick someone up and he'd return for us. The on-line page showed the Cocle was full, so I looked for the nearest hotel with a vacancy. I found it at Avenue 3, Street 3 in Anton and wrote the name and address down. When the driver returned I showed him the new address. "No a Cocle Hotel, pero aqui," I said and I pointed to the new address. He agreed it wasn't a problem.

Off we go. Our driver and his passenger didn't speak English, and they chatted to each other, essentially ignoring us. It took me a half hour too long to realize he was still taking us to the Cocle Hotel. We turned around and drive back to Anton and then spent a half hour searching for the hotel at Avenue 3 and Street 3 in a part of town that didn't see many taxis. Ever.

That address, by the way, had a few people eating donuts and chatting, but no hotel. An Internet scam? At this point I was frantic and told the driver I needed help and how much would it cost. He wasn't happy.

A little lady of 82 years spoke with Darling. Darling speaks less Spanish than I do, but manages to communicate with anyone in any country. This nice little lady took us a few blocks away to a hostel, which was apparently the same as the non-existent hotel. "Tranquila," she says to Darling, patting her arm. "Tranquila."

"Do you have a room?" I asked in broken Spanish. The lady at the hostel asked if we had reservations. I asked if she had a room. She took me to a phone where I spoke with the person in charge of the website. She works from Hawaii. So, yes, we had reservations. In the hostel.

They had parades the next morning in the streets outside our hotel, so we walked to the highway to meet with Sandy, the guy I wanted to see. He was coming from Panama City. "Why didn't we just come out here with him," asked Darling. I didn't think of it.

I did ask for a ride back. It seemed like a good idea to skip the driving tour of the company, and I wanted to go home.

Sandy not only gave us a ride back to Panama City, but he also got us a discount at the Trump Hotel, where he LIVES. (How cool is that?) Most people at the Trump Hotel speak excellent English. Perhaps this is where all the expats live.

I just wanted to go home. The glamour of Panama faded and our home in the US called to me. I cancelled the rest of the trip, incurring fees for things that could not be refunded - and then some. We couldn't change the tickets to go home, so we spent the rest of the week in the Trump Hotel.

They don't offer free breakfast, by the way.

We did see the Panama Canal, and it is an impressive engineering feat.

Let me recap.

1. Latin America is pretty much all the same. Like everywhere, most people are friendly and some are not.
2. There IS a language barrier. If you want to travel in Latin America, learn GOOD Spanish.
3. Panama isn't the haven for expats that it once was. Home and land prices are through the roof, mostly because rich expats pay prices that are exorbitant for homes and land. The local people feel the impact of this keenly, and it hurts them.
4. When buying airline tickets, DON"T BUY THE INSURANCE. It's a scam. Essentially, you have to be dying, but capable of flying home with a doctor's note. No, there is no way to make it work. It's a scam. Once you buy your tickets, you're stuck. Plan your dates and you're stuck with them.
5. When working with companies to make travel plans, make sure you have a confirmation number for every night and every place you plan to visit. Don't just use email, but talk to them on the phone.
5A - I think any future trips we make will be group adventures. I'm not all that good at making plans for overseas adventures.
6. I'm not the man I wanted to be - the man with a backpack that could walk across continents. I like my comforts. I like my computers. I like fluffy pillows and television.
7. I still look at prices and evaluate value with every dollar we spend. It's an ingrained part of my personality. This trip was a disaster from that point of view.

It cost $40 to get back to the airport, too. Non-negotiable. A final insult.

No, Panama isn't where we want to be, and I'm not too sure I want to visit again.

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