We leave Boca Chica Wednesday morning and drive mostly along the Carreterra Pan-Americana, the highway that stretches all the way from Alaska to the southern tip of South America, except for a brief interruption in eastern Panama called the Darien Gap. Darien province is one of the few truly wild places left on the planet and the road has yet to penetrate the deep jungle there. It’s said there is little appetite in Panama to work on the road as this will encourage more drug smuggling from Colombia, the southern neighbour.
The scenery along our route is spectacular. Mountains in the background, green rolling hills in the foreground. We come up with the phrase “verdant fecundity” to describe the environment. The shades of green range from lime to forest and everything in between. The greenery is dotted with spots of colour from birds, flowers and the simple concrete houses painted brightly to match the flora and fauna.
We leave the 4-lane highway and take a more meandering, narrow, twisty, hilly barely 2-lane, shoulderless road that connects numerous small villages and one largish supply town called Sona. At Santiago, the large city in the area, we head north into the mountains on a more primitive track. Our destination: Santa Fe and the Coffee Mountain Inn http://coffeemountaininn.com.
To our great relief, the dashboard thermometer goes from 38 degrees in Sona to 28 degrees in Santa Fe. Population 2,500, it is literally the end of the road, high in the mountains, too small to even merit a mention in our guidebook. In other words, off the beaten track. We are here to hike, raft and learn about coffee. As well, previously unbeknownst to us, it is time for Carnevale, an annual fiesta in the latin world marked by dancing and drinking, two things we have been known to enjoy. Should be interesting!!
Amazingly there are two Cambodian chefs, sisters, working at one of the hotel restaurants and we avail ourselves of their food often as there’s not much else to choose from. This is a bare-bones outpost of a town, to put it mildly. Not even a gas station. We are reminded of the hill station in north east India, Darjeeling, where we spent a few nights in 1985. Moody, cloudy, isolated, desolate. Perhaps when the skies clear the town will look more cheerful.
It’s not helping that our inn owners are less than friendly. We arrive a half hour before check-in and although the room is ready we are not allowed to use the bathroom nor leave our bags. We’re given a map of the area and sent away until 3 PM. Neither of the owners go out of their way to be helpful. Breakfast is barely edible. There are no screens on the patio doors and as we are warned about bugs we must close them in the afternoon and through the evening. We lament the fact that we are in the mountains and should be sleeping in fresh mountain air rather than under the blast of the a/c. The internet only works at night so I get up early, just before dawn, to go on-line. It’s just me, the roosters and a sliver of a moon.
The next morning we get out our guide book, looking for a room somewhere down the road for a few nights, invoking the adage “sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason”. We manage to get an extra night at our next destination, which gets us out of Santa Fe a day early. A light at the end of the tunnel!
In the meantime, we make the best of it. We hike the hikes, swim in the swimming holes, drive the scenic mountain-view drives, visit a coffee plantation. The vistas are gorgeous. Craig spends hours with the binoculars looking at the birds while we sit on our patio reading and playing Scrabble. He hires Eddy to take him horseback riding. Not my thing, as most of you know. We find El Dorado, a restaurant where we can get a huge plate of shrimp fried rice for $8. We eat there three or four times. Return to enjoy the Cambodian chefs’ food because it is so tasty and the view is great.
Carnevale turns out to be a bit of a bust. Not much happens in Santa Fe so we drive to San Fransisco, a larger town back the way we came. Realizing we are on a quarter tank of gas and not able to buy any in Santa Fe, we hope to find a gas station in San Fransisco. Disculpe! Sorry! We have to go farther on to Santiago or risk running out of gas. Geez!! Another lesson learned. Don’t go into the mountains of Panama without a full tank of gas.
In San Fransisco we see the makings of a parade, but mostly it is teenagers getting drunk and little kids with water guns shooting at each other. There’s some music but nobody dancing. It’s easily 40 degrees in the blazing sun, not a cloud in the sky and no shade to be found so we head into Kathy’s bar for cold beer. Cheapest beer in a very long time. So cheap, we think there’s a mistake when she asks for $1.50 for two. That’s US$ mind you, so it’s a buck each Canadian. Still cheapest in a long time.
The most emaciated dog, a female with skinny dangly teats, shambles in and we can hardly stand to look at her. Craig dashes off to the nearby mini-super to buy a bag of dog food, returning in a hot sweat. Kathy does’t want us feeding her in the bar so we take the food into the alley and put a mound of it on the dirt. She gobbles it down. We give her more. She gobbles it down. We give her more and then no more, fearing it will make her sick. She is the epitome of the expression “skin and bones”. It’s horrible. We leave the remaining food with Kathy, but have no idea whether she will feed the dog or not. It’s quiet in the car on the drive back to Santa Fe. Neither of us wants to talk about the dog.
Back on our balcony, over glasses of wine, we watch the sun go down over the mountains and decide Santa Fe is kind of like being on vacation in BC and going to Princeton. Great scenery, hiking, rivers, greenery – and we’ve got lots of photos of those – but not necessarily the highlight of the trip.