Chitré – The Surprise Among Panama's Cities
Trip Start Dec 27, 2008
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Panama: Eight Destinations in Which to Spend the Winter Months
First Time Reader: Why Panama? – This blog explains the rationale of the trip and this series of blogs.
Have a look at the most recent entry from the Victoria, British Columbia blog – the photos are amazing
Whale of a Story – It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
Chitré – The One Surprise Among Panama's Cities
The up and coming destination for expats in Panama is the Azuero Peninsula located between the Gulf of Panama in the east and the Gulf of Chiriqui in the west.
Chitré is the main city at the north end of the Azuero Peninsula making it the gateway to explore this beautiful part of Panama. I stopped here for the day on my way to Pedasi. In this series of blogs: Panama – Eight Destinations in Which to Spend the Winter Months, Pedasi will be the fourth. Just as a note of clarification, Chitré is not among the eight destinations but on the other hand it is a nice city.
Like all trips to various parts of Panama from Panama City, this one also started at the Gran Terminal Nacional. As a previous blog indicated, the bus station is huge but destinations are well labeled. So it was just a matter of finding the Chitré ticket window. I did not know the bus schedule but the buses run frequently and within 15 minutes I was on my way.
By this time I was getting quite familiar with the route heading west along the Pan American Highway as the bus passed signs for Coronado, Playa Blanca, and San Carlos (Valle de Anton).
Except for the first class buses that serve the routes between Panama City, David and San José, Costa Rica, buses in Panama do not have on -board washrooms. So if you need to go you have to be really quick to use a toilet during the numerous stops along the way. But be sure you tell the driver that you are doing so or else the bus may have left before the last piece of toilet paper has done its dirty work. On long routes like this one to Chitré, there is always one half-hour stop to grab a bite to eat. In this case it was a cafeteria – the Restaurante Universale where the bus driver and his "aide de camp", the ticket collector, ate.
Chitré is about a five-hour bus ride from Panama City therefore I was only too glad to get off at the bus station well removed from the downtown area. Using a method Barbara and I often used in our trip to Mexico last year, I simply asked a taxi driver to take me to an inexpensive hotel. In this case inexpensive turned out to be outside of the downtown area. Considering how I am incapable of sitting in the safety of a hotel room in the evening, I could not see myself walking in the dark from downtown to where the taxi driver wanted to drop me off even though the price of accommodations per night was $15.
His second attempt at a hotel brought me right to the central plaza and the Hotel Rex. Convenience has its price and that is how I ended up paying $33 for a night’s accommodation that was definitely at the top of the scale for my budget. Nothing fancy here, just basic accommodations with some amenities like WiFi, air conditioning, cable TV and a lovely terrace overlooking the plaza and the El Meson Restaurant at ground level.
I was disappointed to hear that I could only stay one night due to two wedding parties that had booked all the available rooms. Was I doomed to stay in the outskirts of the city after all? So the first order of business after dropping off my oversized travel bag in my room at the Hotel Rex was to hit the pavement in search of tomorrow’s accommodations. That led me to the Hotel Santa Rita located only two blocks from the central plaza where I was able to get a room for $25 for the next day.
I liked Chitré very much. Let me explain.
Chitré was the first city in Panama apart from the Casco Viejo in Panama City where I saw some evidence of Spanish colonial architecture. After our trip to Mexico and the ensuing blog: Mexico – 23 Destinations to Spend the Winter Months, I was desperate to see some vestiges of Spanish colonial architecture.
In Mexico the “centro historicos” abounded from city to city leaving us enraptured with their beautiful architecture. That would be sadly lacking in Panama.
The focus of my admiration in Chitré was the “Catedral de San Juan Batista” or St. John the Baptist Cathedral. Big, beautiful and glorious - inside and outside - it is the centerpiece of Chitré and a legacy of Spanish colonial times. It uplifts the whole town and the streets that radiate from it. At least that was the effect it had upon me. As I walked around in the warm radiant late afternoon sun there was plenty to photograph in terms of people, architecture and street scenes. I was impressed with the hustle and bustle of the commercial downtown. It was interesting to walk about and observe. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder and someone else may come here and conclude that this is just another of Panama’s drab and dreary cities – Panama City spectacularly excepted.
Yes, in general I was not impressed with urban Panama and my disappointment is based on the lack of the “centro historico” aspect. The Spanish were here, they conquered, they plundered, they colonized but in the end, unlike other parts of Latin America, they left little in terms of architecture.
The feeling, however, in Chitré was good.
OK, so maybe there was something else that induced a good feeling and that was the carnival.
Did someone say – carnival? But is that not supposed to be next weekend? So what was all this talk about the “carnevale”?
It turns out my timing was impeccable as the carnival was going to have a dry run tomorrow evening.
When it comes to “feeling” there is nothing that gets the imagination going more than the “carnavales” that are celebrated in most towns and cities across Panama beginning the Saturday of the week of February 13. The pre-Lenten celebration is billed as a “celebration of the flesh”. The party starts on Friday night and goes through until the night of the following Tuesday.
Other than the partying, the “carnavales” are characterized by big floats, grand costumes and fireworks. One of the highlights of the carnival is the “culeco” or dousing of the crowd with water from a tanker by means of fire hoses.
There was only one problem, the “carnevale”, of which Chitré has one of the best in the country, is not until next weekend. That is why the spectator stands were erected along the plaza in front of the Hotel Rex.
But I was in luck as tomorrow night there was to be a dry run (no culeco) of the Carnevale right here in Chitré. Wow, that was an unexpected turn of events.
That changed my plans and that is the reason why I stayed two nights in Chitré. On Saturday morning I could take a bus to Pedasi and still have plenty of time to come back in the evening to catch the Carnevale in Chitré. Anyway that is my story and I am sticking to it.
I like “pollo asado” or the grilled chicken that is available throughout Panama. The problem is I eat late, like around 21:00 and by that time the asadores are already closed but not here in Chitré. Being a creature of habit, I ate at the local chicken grill two nights in a row. Grilled chicken with yucca and a Balboa beer surrounded by the locals watching baseball on TV, all for about $3.00 was my idea of a good dinner and good time.
The yucca plant when fried or maybe boiled has all the appearance, texture and even taste of a potato.
Panamanians are big fans of baseball as it is watched wherever you travel. Panama has its own professional league and a few Panamanian players have made it as far as the Major Leagues in the U.S.A.
Now finally for the “carnavale” pre-view, was it worth coming back to Chitré to have a look? By all means, it was fabulous just to see all the center of the city covered in wall-to-wall people and to see the giant floats slowly making their way through the streets and around the main plaza. The massive float featuring the carnival queen was bathed in a golden light that contrasted sharply with the surrounding darkness. Add to that the giant warrior statues also on the float and it made for a pretty awesome scene.
A second giant float carried a crazy band that kept playing the same tune over and over. It all added to the frenzy of the assembled crowd who en masse hit the street and followed along in a giant procession.
The highlight of the evening was when this gaudy procession passed in front of Catedral de San Juan Batista. It was here that the golden lighting of floats met the beautiful golden illumination of the cathedral thereby creating a crescendo of sight and feeling that is the most lasting memory of my stay in Chitré.
The carnival was great for people watching but somewhat disappointing in the sense that if the “carneval” is supposed to be a celebration of the flesh, there was precious little flesh to be seen. Don’t come here expecting to find Rio de Janiero with its abundance of scantily clad beautiful women and general debauchery. I can’t say about the debauchery since that may not have been visible but the lack of skin was definitely brilliant by its absence.
This is not to forget that the real show is next weekend when no hotel room will be available far and wide and I shall be long gone and the action may be a lot hotter.
Pedasi: Jewel of the Azuero Peninsula