David is a burgeoning commercial center and port, located on Panama’s Pacific coast and surrounded by small villages and villa enclaves. We caught the town mid-rise, a snapshot of a city that was once smaller and poorer, grown – and growing – rapidly to fit its larger economic shoes. The evidence of recent poverty was visible – a dotting of ramshackle building, broken roads, and the begging homeless. As part of the upswing however even the poor were not starving, many newer and larger buildings filled the streets, luxury shops were open, and public works were well maintained. A sense of general safety and upward activity filled the city.
We arrived at the sprawling bus station late in the evening, fresh from crossing the border and riding in a collectivo playing 80’s music through the mountains. The town was asleep and our only goals were to find dinner and a place to stay the night. We found Hotel David, a cheap and clean hotel right in the bus station. Finding food proved harder. To avoid bus station food we went wandering around what would turn out to be a major shopping district during the day but was entirely deserted at night. Our first attempts at finding a restaurant led only to closed doors – in fact the whole neighborhood seemed to have shut down after 9 pm. Resigned, we began walking back, only to run into a roasted chicken shop who’s cashier showed us photos of his time at the local beaches. Full and comfortable in the AC-equipped room, we went to sleep.
What greeted us upon waking up was entirely unexpected. A parade was passing by just two blocks from the station and we spent to majority of our morning watching it wind through the now fully awake commercial district which had been so lonely the night before. Barkers advertised their stores, street food vendors hawked drinks and snacks, and milling crowds lined the parade route. The local schools and academies, roughly 30 in total, had sent their marching bands to celebrate Panama’s independence day.
They were simply great and it was an unexpected treat to see (and hear) them march. The kids were completely into it, pounding drums, dancing, and smiling bashfully after a particularly good guiro solo.
The guiro is a notched cylinder played with a stick or comb making a rhythmic scraping sound. The ones in the parade were metal cans with ridges. Though extremely common in Latin American music, this was our first time seeing one being played, and they made the iconic shaker noise found in the rhythm section. The parade slowly moved through the city, and as the rain began to fall we witnessed the military school doing one-armed push ups during their routine, followed by an academy who’s girls were lucky enough to have an umbrella as part of their outfits. The clothing the kids wore was emblematic of their school colors, but fashioned after a fairly traditional style.
Eventually the last drum had been beat, the last hand waved, and the marching band kids were off to relax and wait for the bus back to school. We followed the tail of the parade, traffic and vendors filling in the gap behind us.
A quick decision to duck into a restaurant named Fonda Nidia proved a great choice as we dug into a rich beef stock soup and side of rice with pigeon pea beans. The taste of these beans is mildly olive-like and sweet, a welcome change from the weeks of rice and black bean variations in Costa Rica. Inexpensive and filling, the lunch was a much needed hot meal and a solid foundation for what was to come.
Caldera – hot springs in the rain
Nearby the town is an active volcano and an appropriately named region named Caldera. In Caldera lie a set of famous hot springs that Natalie had put on our agenda for the later half of the day, and which I was happy to second. From the station we took a collectivo labeled “Caldera” that would leave us nearby the springs. On Sundays this collective runs three times from David and the last one back from Caldera is at 4 pm. On any other day it runs hourly and late into the night. From the drop off point the walk normally takes about half an hour – in the rain that time doubled. Careful plodding through a normally dry route turned stream got us to the water logged plains of the hot springs with just enough time to turn around and catch the bus. At this moment : cold pouring rain above and slippery, boot soaking mud below, our full packs soaking in the rain despite rain covers, and the last bus an hour away.
Upon deciding to stay – we’d come all this way after all – we went looking for the warmest spring pool in the area. It proved to be across a flooded river and past even more boot-sucking mud, but it was worth it. The water there was straight from the source, hot as could be and deep enough to calmly soak, leaving only nose and eyes exposed to the chilling rain. This pool was also where three other visitors, locals to Caldera, were sitting. A conversation ensued on such varied topics as : the large and unusual amount of rain, the heat of the water we were in, the climate and politics, how we were all planning to get back home, and the difficulty of the walk to and from the springs. My first prolonged conversation on more than one topic, it showed that my Spanish was now, though far from grammatically correct, strong enough to understand most of what was being said, and even to contribute. These interactions make travelling worthwhile, and I was greatly buoyed. An hour of soaking and we were done. Two of our newfound friends offered to drive us back to David for the same cost as a taxi, an offer we gladly accepted. I can only say that in the rain, a car with AC is preferred to help defog the windows – ours did not have this.
Back at the bus station our day ended with : drying what clothes we could while locals looked on, eating a hot vegetable soup, and most interestingly, purchasing tickets for a bus during which a miscommunication occurred between myself and the ticket lady where I thought I was purchasing tickets for 8, but in fact purchased ones for 7:45. This caused us to miss the bus that had our assigned seats and and in a series of rushed and confusing events we were put on the 8:00. Many thanks to the wonderful bus employee who got us through this.
Every trip has these days. The lesson from this one was to check the weather and the time on the ticket. No one was hurt and a little bit of temporary discomfort makes everything else seem that much better, especially the hot soup.