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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Road trip to Panama's interior

I'm back in Panama City, and wow, this past weekend was an exhausting, but terrific one. Marlene (my wife) and I loaded up the kids, the bags, and the snacks and headed into the interior of the country. It was a mistake leaving at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday (the start of the Semana Santa). My wife had to work a half-day though so we got a later start than we'd hoped for. 

With the craziest music mix you can imagine (I let the kids help me put it together) we be-bopped along while we sat in bumper to bumper traffic. I'd expected there to be some congestion, but I'd never expected it to be as bad as it turned out. It was like carnaval traffic headed to the interior. 

I always get a kick out of seeing all of the young entrepreneurs lined up alongside the Pan-American Highway, selling everything from bottles of water to bags of chips to bootlegged mix cds. Anytime you hit traffic in Panama, you can rest assured you won't go thirsty. Someone will be smart enough to set up shop on that busy street corner. It's the same along the highway during any major festival or holiday weekend.

One of the great things about Panama, is everything is kind of set up in one straight line, well, one long curving line really. My point is that I'm always asked if it's confusing trying to get from Panama City to David or Boquete or anywhere else. Really, there's one highway that takes you most of the way. I'll explain what I mean by "most of the way" in just a second. The only decision you'll need to make in Panama City is which bridge you'd like to travel over when you leave the city.

One road heading out will take you past the entrance to the Amador Causeway and out over the Bridge of the Americas or Puente de las Americas. This is the exit you'd choose if you were at downtown Panama City or anywhere near the Cinta Costera, as it's the closest to that area. 

The Bridge of the Americas taken at Amador Causeway

The other option, if you're closer to the Bethania, El Dorado, Condado del Rey area, is to head out past the new shopping center, Centennial Plaza, where the Arrocha, McDonald's, Rey, and Taco Bell are (plenty of other places too). This road will lead towards the Estadio Nacional de Panama, also called the Rod Carew Stadium, where many of the big baseball games are played. That's where you'll find the Centennial Bridge. 

It's important to know how to get to each of these bridges because you never know when one will be closed down for maintenance. The day we were leaving, the Bridge of the Americas was closed down for a couple of hours because a truck spilled oil all over the place. By the time we left it was open again, but in that kind of situation, it's nice to know you can head over to the other bridge to escape town. 

The Centennial Bridge is the newer, cooler looking bridge. If your desire is to cross the Panama Canal, both of these bridges will take you over it. 

Since this article is all about the road trip, I thought I'd mention the house in the photo below. This house is kind of known as the "haunted house" along the highway. It's been recently painted so it doesn't look all that freaky right now, but it's right on the corner as you head into the swervy part of the highway, in the Capira area. Many people have come back from road trips late at night and swore they saw the ghost of a woman walking alongside the road. Truck drivers have told tales of picking up a stranded woman to have her vanish from the truck cab a few minutes later. 

The Haunted House on the Pan-American Highway

I wonder if the people living there know that people think their house is haunted. They probably have no idea and if they stumble upon my article they might be pissed. Like, "Hey, that's my house. What the heck? Haunted? No, we've seen that ghost chick too, but she doesn't live here." 

So, the traffic cleared up right after Chorrera, which is right around where the two lanes of traffic (the one coming from the Bridge of the Americas and the other coming from the Centennial Bridge) meet. Even on a normal, non holiday weekend, you can expect to run into a little bit of traffic right around this point. After that it was smooth sailing. Watching out for cops became the new challenge. On most of the highway, when you're not driving through one of the small towns, you can count on the speed limit being somewhere between 80km per hour and 100km per hour (which is equal to 50-60 miles her hour). The limit changes quickly though. Watch out for the "Reduzca Velocidad" or reduce speed signs and the cops, which were EVERYWHERE this holiday weekend. 

Quite a few Panamanians know about the blinking of the high beams to let fellow travelers know there's a cop up ahead. It's nice when you see that, and to pay it forward I try to do the same whenever I notice a curbside cop in the opposite lane. 

Near Penonome

As I mentioned before, there are only a couple of detours you might need to make, depending on where you're headed to. If your plan is to travel to Chitre, Las Tablas, Pocri, Pedasi, or any of the other towns on the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula, you'll need to make a right onto the overpass in Divisa, which you'll find shortly after you pass Aguadulce. The overpass will take you up and to the left, where you'll begin your drive down the peninsula. Look at the photo below to see what I'm talking about. Once you're on the peninsula, it's pretty much a straight drive all the way to Las Tablas. Once you hit Las Tablas, you'll want to make a left onto the main street (the one across from the church) to reach Pocri, Pedasi, and Playa Venao. 

Head onto this overpass to travel to the towns on the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula

If you stay on the Pan-American Highway, you'll find that it's fairly smooth from Panama City until you get as far as Santiago. You'll still want to be careful for a few random potholes and some dips in the road. I was driving a little Suzuki Swift on this trip and I swear I thought I was about to launch my family into outer space when we hit this smooth dip and rise somewhere around Aguadulce. Somehow my wife slept through the leap and my kids cheering from the back seat. I swear, she can sleep through anything. 

Once you reach Santiago, it becomes a bumpy ride. Never never never ever never make this trip without a spare tire, a jack, and a tire iron handy. No joke. The road gets pretty nasty. And it's a good idea to try and make the trek during the day. Cows tend to roam across the road wherever they please. Night driving isn't a good idea unless you're in a huge truck and you know the area and its road very well. 

Just passed Tole and the sun was going down

We left Panama City at about 12:30 p.m. and reached David at about 8 p.m. That was with the traffic we'd encountered earlier in the day and we stopped to eat at the McDonald's in Santiago. So, I'd say that it probably takes a good 6.5 hours to make the trip with no traffic.

Near Volcan

Besides the turn towards the Azuero Peninsula, that I mentioned earlier, there are only a few other turns you might want to make as you journey to the country's interior. The turn towards Dolega and Boquete is located in David, and about twenty minute's drive down the highway, past David, you'll find the street that takes you towards Volcan. Still, as I mentioned before, each of these turn offs is located on the Pan-American Highway, and since each is a straight street that leads you towards your destination once you leave the highway, getting around this country is really simple. If what you're looking for isn't sitting alongside the highway, you'll be sure to find it at the end of a side street.

Our destination was David, where we hung out with my wife's sister, Darlene (Doctor Dar), for the weekend and visited the surrounding areas. We had a great time, good quality family time. Nowadays it's hard to get away from the computer, so for this trip, I didn't take it with me, and it was wonderful. 

On the way home we hit some horrible traffic, right around the street that takes you up into El Valle, right before San Carlos and Coronado. It took probably an hour just to get a few miles, but then the cops created a third lane by putting cones up to block off one of the west-bound lanes, which allowed some of us heading towards the city to move onto that lane. So, with three lanes headed back to the city, and only one headed away, the congestion thinned out and we were home in no time. 

Thanks for reading,