Saturday, March 5, 2011

Our Trip to Panama, I now know why I hate winter!

Tropical Travels.

It’s the last week of February as I write this and the temperatures are quite seasonal, for Winnipeg! The shock to my system is even worse as we have recently returned from Panama where summer reigns eternal. My wife and I had a holiday 3 years after our last one. This does not sound bad, but when you realize that was our first one in 28 years and to follow it so soon with another one is a major accomplishment for my wife. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming from the ranch so close to my last departure 3 years before, hats off to her.
The above is somewhat tongue in cheek, though there was a time when I was that stubborn. These days the promise of a 30 degree Celsius jump in temperature and 20lbs less clothing on to keep warm is all I need to activate the traveling bug.
Panama is amazing and not at all like I imagined. With a canal between two large oceans I expected a flat swamp laden land, with endless jungle and every one living on a costal strip. Guess what, they have mountains and plenty of them, which is a good thing as they grow the best coffee I have ever tasted. Lots of ranch land, thousands of cattle, year round grazing and no hay to make or feed. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not already in heaven!
In a country of 3 million people and a year round growing season agriculture plays a big role, with beef, pork, and chicken in the meat department, sugar cane, pineapples, bananas, coffee, papaya, mangoes and many vegetables in the field crops. The cattle seemed to be in the hilly regions where bush and terrain made cropping difficult. Most were cow calf operations, their calves are moved to lower greener pastures for finishing. We noticed fattening cattle on lush rotationally grazed pastures in the cropland areas and with no grain being grown I assumed all beef is grass fed. I only saw a few sheep and the only place I saw goats were on the large Indigenous reserves. Many of the ranches in the hills and bushier regions could have used goats to keep the scrub under control and that would improve the pastures for the cattle. (Maybe they need a Pasture consultant, a white-collar job and no winter, score!)
After all this about the production, lets talk consumption. Most higher end restaurants cook dishes from all over the world, and we wanted to eat Panamanian in Panama not Thai, Japanese or American. So we hunted out the Cantinas, which were busy serving locals and were treated to authentic, tasty and cheap meals. The best we found was on the main street in Bouquete a coffee growing town in the mountains. ‘Serasone’ had a large smorgasbord with at least 8 different meats, many different rice’s and vegetables, plantain being my personal favorite. Also several different deserts and cakes. All this, for only $5 per person. One of our fellow travelers received seniors rate and it was $1.50!
Panamanian food is flavourfull but not hot or spicy, in fact the only time I smelt garlic was at the airport on the breath of newly arriving Gringos.
When we were near or on the coast fish was plentiful and was a treat for us after lamb, pork and chicken from our farm. I had to try a steak and found steaks are cut thin and cooked fast to seal in the flavour, actually most meat is grilled or fried with sauces added afterwards. In those temperatures who needs to sweat over a hot stove, and eat roasts and stews. The grass fed steaks were great along with the fish, squid, octopus, crab and lobster.
We spent time on beaches and palm treed desert islands; snorkeled corral reefs and shipwrecks the usual tourist stuff so I won’t bore you. The neat thing to see, and one of our reasons for going was the Panama Canal. We had both learnt about in our geography lessons at high school, so a trip to the Miraflores Locks was one of the highlights of our trip. Luck was with us as the cruise ship “Queen Elizabeth” of the Cunard line from London England was passing through as we were there. The ships are towed through the locks by electrically powered trains, which act as brakes as well as providing forward motion. There was only two feet either side of the ship to spare, so accuracy is paramount. It takes about 8 hours to go from one ocean to the other and at any one time there are 40 to 50 boats waiting at either end to use the system. It runs 24 seven, every day of the year. The cruise ship paid $300,000 for the privilege, and the large container ships stacked high with truck sized boxes pays a cool $1 million for an 8 hour, 54 mile trip. What’s more, they won’t let you enter the system until your cheque has cleared. Who needs to deal in drugs when you have a canal!
Folks have asked me if I felt safe there and was security a concern. Well the police are all heavily armed, many with shotguns and machine guns, they are friendly and helpful and there seems no shortage of them. There was no sign of speed cop’s, the potholes do their job for free. The rest of the locals are very friendly and not armed, so to be honest I have felt more nervous on Canadian city streets at times than ever I did in Panama City or else where in Panama.
So I would give Panama a big “thumbs up”, go and check it out. I know two of you have as while walking around a coffee plantation in Bouquete I met a couple from Sorrento. What’s more we bumped into them in Old Panama City a week later, 400kms from the coffee farm. Small world or what!
Rob Fensom calls Harmonious Homestead and ewe home and farms in the city.

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