Panama: A Dream Road Trip Through the Country and an Album

Volcan baru large

Christine and I were considering places to go for winters, or perhaps even as a place to retire full time. We did some research and were reading a lot of good things about Panama. The more we read about Panama, the more we felt that we needed to actually go there and see what it was like. For me personally, travel is always about exploration and inspiration, and I thought it would also end up inspiring new music.

What we put together was a two week road trip through Panama with a particular focus on Boquete, a small town at the base of Volcan Baru, an active stratovolcano that is also the tallest mountain in Panama.

Our flight was in two parts. First a short flight to Houston where we stayed overnight. From Houston, we flew to Panama City. When we got off the plane in Panama, before going through customs, we had to fill out a form relating to the Corona Virus and if we had visited China. Immediately after deplaning, we were met by a crew of people in full protective wear, masks and temperature guns. They took each person’s temperature. If you had a fever, you didn’t get into the country. Getting through customs took a while in a hot, crowded, smelly room. Not a pleasant Panama welcome.

We headed to the car rental area and went to Thrifty Car Rental where we had a car reserved. The “$25 per week” car that we reserved turned into a $425 rental due to the fact that you have to buy liability insurance in Panama. Credit cards would not cover it.

We started driving towards Panama City, where our hotel was located, and only then found out that Google Maps would not work without internet. So, with Christine navigating, using only our GPS to see where we were, and me trying to stay clear of the insane Panamanian drivers, AND it being Friday rush hour on Carnival weekend, it was a recipe for disaster. What should have taken twenty minutes to get to the hotel, took at least two hours, sometimes totally stopped in traffic for ten minutes or more. When we finally arrived at the hotel, we were relieved to be in a beautiful Marriott hotel that was above our expectations. We spent two days exploring the city before hitting the road.

Rather than describing every detail of our trip, I think it best to discuss Panama Piano, the album that was inspired by our Panamanian experiences. I approached this album in a similar way to Southwest Solo Piano, with one major difference. For Southwest Solo Piano, I would think about each of the places that we visited, and then improvise music based on those thoughts and feelings. With Panama Piano, I started with an improvisation after considering places and experiences, but instead of recording the improvisations, I would compose the pieces using the ideas and melodies that came up during the improvisation.

This is the Panama Piano album cover. We were relaxing in the backyard of Casa Alegria when a misty rain blew through in one particular spot while the sun was blazing. I had never seen such a brilliant rainbow.

Panama PIano Cover

Here are the songs on the album. 

Pan-American Highway

The Pan-American Highway is a 19,000 mile highway that goes from the very southern tip of South America to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. For the most part, it runs north and south, but in Panama, it runs east and west. From Panama City, we headed west to begin our road trip. About a twenty minute drive from our hotel in the financial district of Panama City, we stopped at the Miraflores Visitor Center to see the locks at the Panama Canal. We were fortunate to get there just as an cruiseship was going through.

Panama Canal

From there we headed towards Santiago, a city right in the center of the country. There was construction on the hightway at the beginning, but things began to open up and the highway was a good ride. I got pulled over for speeding at one point, and even though my Spanish gets me by, I pretended that I didn’t speak Spanish. They let me go because my not speaking or understanding them was too problematic. I slowed down after that. Ha! The further we got away from Panama City, the fewer cars and trucks there were on the highway. We saw beautiful countryside with not a whole lot going on in the way of towns along it. The song reflects movement. For me it captured the feeling of our crusing through the country. We had a number of three and four hour streches on the highway. We practiced Spanish a lot of the time we were driving. The drivers were better behaved on the highway than the ones in Panama City.

Playa Santa Catalina

This was our first beach town. We stayed for two nights at a beautiful hotel called Hotel Santa Catalina. It was actually made up of small building with two casita-like rooms in each building. There were hammocks and chairs outside of each room and Christine and I enjoyed a lot of Balboa beers there. This was a very relaxing stay. There was an open-air restaurant and a pool overlooking the beach. The beach was private, but it was not a sandy swimming beach. It was very shallow and rocky. But during low tide, it was fantastic to be able to go way out and look at all the tidepools. The pool was an infinity pool overlooking the ocean. The temperature of the pool water was perfect and we often had the pool to ourselves. The town itself, was very small.

Here is the view from the restaurant and pool at Hotel Santa Catalina. IMG_6832

Here I am enjoiying one of those Balboa beers.Panama hammock 3

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo is Spanish for Old Quarter. This area reminded me of the French Quarter in New Orleans architecturally. It is well known for its dining and nightlife scene with cocktail lounges, rooftop bars, and global restaurants. Approching this song musically, I connected with the music of the old dance halls of Cuba. The music is definitely old school Latin. I felt like I was channeling that type of music with this song.

This is the cover of the single “Casco Viejo.” Another building in Casco ViejoCasco Viejo Cover

Another building in Casco Viejocasco

Las Lajas

Las Lajas was another beautiful surprise. We had trouble finding our little B&B. What a delight to find our little casita was so much nicer than what we saw in the pictures. This place was run by an Italian man and his wife. We managed to communicate through a Spanish, English and Italian. We took a walk to the beach, which was only about a five minute walk, and were blown away by the fact that we were the only ones on the beach for as far as we could see in either direction! We saw living sand dollars and some baby sea snakes when the waves would wash in. It was super relaxing and we had a fantastic dinner and margaritas at pretty much the only restaurant in town that was open.

Las Lajas beach with no people on it except Christine and me. Las Lajas beach

This is a palm tree that was on the property of the B&B we stayed at. That photo became the cover of the single, “Las Lajas.”Las Lajas Cover

Panama

I think that the reason why I went the direction I did on this song was because of all of the things that we saw and experienced while exploring the country. The music is very celebratory and positive.

Here we are on the Amador Causeway with Panama City in the background.Panama City Amador Causeway

Financial District, Panama CityPanama financial dist

Casa Alegria

Casa Alegria is a B&B. It actually means Joy House. It is located in Boquete and we stayed there for four nights, our longest stay in any one place. It is run by a very nice couple named Dean and Carol.

Pelicans

We saw Pelicans on numerous occasions anytime we were near water. We saw them around Panama City, Playa Santa Catalina and Las Lajas. There was one time in Playa Santa Catalina where I saw over a dozen of them flying in formation. I also videoed one that was diving for food when we were walking on the Amador Causeway in Panama City. That pelican inspired this song. He was flying up and then diving for fish. He would glide along, float up in the air and then dive. He made it look so easy. This song reminds me of Satie’s piano piece, “Gymnopedie”, because of its simpicity and waltz feel.

This is the cover of the “Pelicans” single.Version 2

Boquete

The town is small and beautiful. The restaurants in Boquete were off the charts amazing! Most of them are farm-to-table. We did a fair amount of shopping there at small stores and outdoor markets. We did some exploring driving around the town as well as walking around the town. There were beautiful tropical flowers everywhere. At one point, we witnessed the most glorious rainbow that I took a picture of. That photo ended up as the cover of Panama Piano.

Boquete sign

The Lost Waterfalls

This was a fantastic hike! One of the best! We drove a little north of Boquete to find it. It features three large waterfalls and a pretty rigorous hike which included some areas where ropes were needed to ascend and descend. There was some mud on the trail, but considering this was pretty much a jungle hike, it wasn’t too bad. We had a couple of the waterfalls to ourselves as we had gotten there early. I think the music captures the feeling of running water. I’d like to think that the music is very positive and exciting the way we felt about the hike.

Waterfall

Waterfall 1

Waterfall 2

Cafes de la Luna

When we were in Boquete, we found a coffee plantation at the foot of Volcan Baru that uses biodynamic gardening techniques and actually plants and harvests based on the phases of the moon. They also sun dry their beans. We went on a tour there. What a beautiful place. At the end they made us coffee. Delightful!

Luna 1

Luna 2

Diablo Rojo

This is about the rogue buses of Panama City and beyond. Diablo Rojo means Red Devil. These are colorfully painted buses with magnesium rims and chrome plated exhaust pipes that roar through the city streets with music blaring. These old U.S. school buses were the only mass transit back in the day. The buses are privately owned and charge $.25 a ride. Apparently with no seat belts or safety, these buses are pretty dangerous and they are being phased out and replaced by normal looking mass transit buses. It is sad that so many of them have been scrapped as each of these buses is uniquely painted and can be seen as works of art.

This is the cover of the single, “Diablo Rojo.”Diablo Rojo Cover

Volcan Baru

Volcan Baru is an active stratovolcano that is also the tallest mountain in Panama. I tried to give this piece a very large sound that would reflect the sheer size and beauty of this volcano. Volcan Baru

Sancocho

Sancocho is a spicy chicken soup that we tried for the first time in Panama. Many Latin American countries make variations of this delightful broth. Delicious! Colibri, which means hummingbird in Spanish, was our favorite restaurant in Boquete and had the best Sancocho.

Colibri

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