Written by Jose Kevo on 01 Jun, 2006
Unless flying into Isla Colon, the only other option for reaching the islands is using ground transportation. Bocas del Toro has became the beach destination associated with Boquete's nearby mountains on tours of the country.If having access to a rental car, there's no need for…Read More
Unless flying into Isla Colon, the only other option for reaching the islands is using ground transportation. Bocas del Toro has became the beach destination associated with Boquete's nearby mountains on tours of the country.If having access to a rental car, there's no need for back-tracking to David for accessing the highway to Chiriquí Grande. From Boquete, look for the new Caldera Turn-off which connects with this highway. It's yet to appear on any map, but shaves-off a minimum of 2-hours. From Boquete, the 172km scenic drive took 4-hours for reaching the port town of Almirante, and gives travelers glimpses into Panama that most never even dreamed existed.
Heading towards the Continental Divide, the highway snakes its way through landscapes dictated by mountains. On southern side of the chain, barren expanses are peppered with large boulders flung from Volcán Barú's last eruption in the 16th century. The arid affect is best illustrated the way parched, rolling foothills trail-off towards the Pacific's coastal plain, the ocean visible on clear days. Few inhabit these upper elevations which support little more than range fodder for grazing livestock.
Vegetation begins thickening as roadway makes a final climb for the pinnacle. The last-minute check-point and toll-booth station is only for large trucks; normal vehicles are waved-through. And without fanfare or any spectacular view, crossing the Continental Divide is as anonymous as the numberless highway; passage recognizable only by the downward course, and obvious environmental change.
The northern side through this area, known as the Talamanca Mountains, receives some of the country's highest amounts of rainfall, which contradicts name for the Bosque Palo Seco; the Dry-Timber Forest Preserve which lushly propagates 400,000-acres of the upper elevations. Cloud forest density is said to be inpenetrable like found in the Darién Province, with environs sufficient enough for supporting the harpy eagle and jaguars; Panama's two greatest predators. If time permits, three short trails fan-out from the roadside Ranger's Station. There's a $3 admission fee.
Random clearings teased with sightings of a distant pool cupped within the mountain valleys. The Fortuna Lake generates the main source of power for western Panama, and its depths are confounding when gauged from the towering dam the highway eventually crosses. There's a place for pulling over on the southern approach, with viewing platforms and vendors selling snacks and drinks. Visibilities aren't nearly as impressive as overviews from higher elevations.
Shortly down the road, anticipate hazy, first-glimpses of the Caribbean and sparse appearances of crude civilization scattered about. These unsuspecting places are traveler's only hope in case of any emergency. They're also the only forms of commerce doubling as roadside markets, restaurants and cantinas, and local gathering spots. Some also advertise rooms and cabañas available, which are the only lodging options if wanting to thoroughly explore this area.
_______________More thrilling than the hairiest roller-coaster ride, there was simply no way for taking-in or appreciating the full-scope of nature that engulfed the roadway. Expect frequent, simultaneous "Did you see that!" clamors from fellow passengers looking-out from all angles of the car.Best enticements are found along hair-pin curves, where mountain run-offs cascade through crevices.It's a guaranteed barrage of natural distraction that drivers need to look-out for, and enjoy best they can without taking their eyes of the winding road. For passengers, the return trip is just as original with fresh perspectives from other side of the roadway.
Vegetation will begin to diversify about halfway down the mountain range as Cloud forest begins easing into Rain forest; evidence detectable when massive ferns, flowering tropicals, and dense undergrowth begin to prove why the upper elevations are called Dry Timber. Also expect to witness a substantial increase in colorful birds and butterflies wafting about; untimely demises with passing vehicles almost unavoidable.
The highway begins a direct course heading through the lower elevations, and even passes through a pair of small hamlets not listed on any maps. While nothing worth stopping for, the beehives of outdoor activities reveal changes influenced by the nearby Caribbean shore, and presence of Afro-Antillean immigrants. Settlements portray the destitution which dominates Panama's rural regions, but it's the scattered roadside homesteads where the simple life appears so inviting.
The turn-off for Almirante is unmarked but recognizable when coming to a large Roadside Plaza. A small sign indicates Chiriquí Grande is straight ahead, but you'll want to make a left. It's 65km to the port-town, passing through fertile coastal plains which display what this section of Panama is best known for. Vast expanses, flourishing with bananas, pineapples, sugar cane, and other tropical crops, are managed by American-based Fruit Companies as the only source of local employment. With all the fortunes growing in the fields, you'll sadly see the fruitless efforts of labor in Almirante.
For all the anticipation of getting to Bocas del Toro's Caribbean locale, the sea takes on more of a large lake's appearance with off-shore islands of the archipelago bounding the distant vistas. For long stretches, the highway rises and falls along the coast until dipping into a gentle valley, and crosses a series of bridges spanning rivers which drain southern slopes of the Continental Divide. There's nothing to suggest that the port town of Almirante is just ahead, but get ready because it's more than anyone can contemplate or prepare for.
_______________TRAVEL TIPSThe pair of highways used for making this connection were surprisingly in good condition for servicing such forbidding terrains. Torrential downpours can reduce visibility to nil. There are no shoulders for pulling over, which also limits prolonged enjoyments of roadside gems found along the way. Also, traffic can back-up with large trucks carrying heavy loads. Passing is impossible, but drivers cooperate by waving other vehicles around at the first available clearing. If having a flat tire or problems which requires stopping, vehicles pull-over towards the ditch best they can, as you'll commonly notice. Not only do Panamanians seem to frequently break down, they also regularly stop to offer roadside assistance, or place cellphone calls.
The two-lane highways are narrow, with no posted speed limits. In addition to steep conditions, the road dips and weaves precariously with endless hair-pin curves further slowing progress. Be advised that landslides aren't uncommon, and at one-point the highway had a brief stretch of single lane where part of a bridge and roadway had washed away. Based on nature of the highway, these potential hazards appear out of nowhere. Also be aware that vehicles split lanes when flying around curves. It's customary to honk the horn when approaching these blind spots. It's also recommended to drive with windows down to make these warning signals more audible.There's a large roadside plaza at the unmarked Almirante turn-off, where the highway also heads north towards Chiriquí Grande. Between David and Boquete and the port towns, this is the only place for purchasing fuel, so plan ahead. All public transportation makes 30-minute stops here, including the long-haul buses which depart from Panama City. The cafeteria was Asian-owned, and served a very nice touch on local favorites using different seasonings, thicker sauces, and vegetables that were actually pan-sauteed or steamed and not stewed. The plaza also includes a store, and one of the best maintained restroom facilities found.
Are We There Yet?Even with all the pleasant, natural distractions, the drive from Boquete to Almirante seemed to take forever! There are no mileage markers or signs that suggest exactly where you might be; no surprise when the highways have no official names or numbers. On maps, the route appears as a fairly direct course heading north from David, until turning left at the roadside plaza with 65km more extending north/northwest. What the map can't possibly decode are the irregularities of roadways which prolong the journey. Expect at least a 4-hour trip from Boquete, and 5-hours from David using time as the only distance measurement. Close
Connecting to the off-shore islands requires water taxi service from either Almirante, or the more distant port of Changuinola. Neither of these shit-hole towns can be avoided unless flying, and heart-tugging poverty sets a despondency that carries to the islands; something travelers need to brace…Read More
Connecting to the off-shore islands requires water taxi service from either Almirante, or the more distant port of Changuinola. Neither of these shit-hole towns can be avoided unless flying, and heart-tugging poverty sets a despondency that carries to the islands; something travelers need to brace themselves for.With no road signs or advertisements of location, our car was suddenly besieged by a group on bicycles. Blocking the highway, the leader wore a fluorescent highway worker's vest and officially flashed a badge. When lowering window to inquire about situation, an onslaught of questions about our plans intensified with insistence to follow members down a rutted road passing through clusters of shacks. Within short distance of fleeing at the last-minute, it became apparent this was Almirante, and suspect crew of greeters were simply trying to eek-out a living directing arrivals.
Stopping to ask for directions, we followed another youngster on his bicycle through the confusing maze of dusty streets, with still no assurance of what we were getting into. It wasn't long until the pack we'd previously evaded came flying across town to join the chase. Lucky for us, they got cut-off from the rusted-out train inching along side of the road. Blank faces occupied the windows; incoherent scarecrows returning home after toiling in the fields. The spine-tingling scenario was more haunting than if Alfred Hitchcock would have ever penned a Twilight Zone episode, except this was embellished in dismal color; nothing, yet everything black and white about the plight.Ready to turn-tail and scrap the whole weekend further escalated once the others, never relinquishing hot pursuit, caught-up to restake their finders' rights. With still no inkling of where we were headed or what we were really getting led-off to, desperation involved calling someone in Boquete familiar with the local routine. Advice was to let the street youth take care of us; provided we also took care of them.For arrivals by private car or public transportation, where the bus stop is a harrowing walk to anywhere, relying upon these struggling children is mutual survival. The town and departure port is situated in such a way, there's no way to master any sense of directions; possibly the only thing these kids have going for them. Expect a frenzy of opportunists wanting to show the way or carry bags. For the most part, they're helpless and will fend of other shorties aggressively selling drugs. Have small bills ready; give those which help at least $1.
The water-taxi stand is hidden along an inland, polluted bay. Departures run about every 30-minutes, between 6:30am and 6:30pm to Bocas town, costing $3. The ride takes about 35-minutes, but that's not the timing factor to be concerned with. Whatever you do, plan to arrive before that last boat leaves because this is not a place you want to be stuck for the night.If driving, street kids will direct you to a house with a secure fenced-in lot. They'll also wait as escorts to the water taxis about a 3-minute walk away. Leiza Parking costs $3 a day; their contact numbers are 6533-7684 or 6642-8021.Lamentations for the Conscious TravelerAnyone familiar with Dario a Euraque's book, Reinterpreting the Banana Republic, which focuses on Honduras and exploitations by American Fruit Companies, already knows the disturbing facts. Almirante is the Panamanian equivalent where indigent laborers slave in banana and pineapple fields to barely subsist. Truthfully, a child can potentially earn more in one day from assisting travelers, than their parents will be paid for a week.
Exposures to impoverished conditions were nothing new, but something about this God-forsaken place defied every sense of reality. Our return water taxi from Bocas town was just unloading, when in walked Michael; the 14-year old which had initially helped and eventually got the persistent mob to disperse. Loaded down with passengers' bags, his eyes lit-up when he saw us. Not only did he remember our names, he did his best to address me in broken English to make sure I understood his asking about how our weekend had been.We passed through the congestion to wait for Michael so he could carry our backpacks to the parking lot, but he'd already seized an opportunity with other passengers. When seeing us, there was a momentary clarification with his sojourners while sitting bags at their feet and indicating a quick return. Wearing the same tattered clothes from when we'd meet 48-hours earlier, Michael approached with the same levels of charisma we'd initially taken as suspicious, but had more than proven genuine if not desperate.So why him, and not one of us? With no purpose of rendezvous except for impulse compassion, we unconsciously began foraging through belongings to offer clothing, toiletries, left-over snacks and money; just because and without plan or a single word spoken on our part. At that point, asking for a picture would've have only detained the nature of his survival, but I'll never forget the indebtedness from an experience which began just as mutual.Beginning and ending trips in Almirante stings worse than any sunburn, and confronting others' self-inflicted miseries in Bocas town only provokes indignities of these children. Fly to Bocas for avoiding the long-haul and the disheartening, but seriously—this is one of those places that everyone should witness as one of those travel experiences guaranteed to reassess so-called priorities in life. Close