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How PhillyB Fought the Law in Panama and Won (and other fun stories.)

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I got back from Ecuador a few days after Christmas, relieved to be driving regular roads again. As noted, the ones there were disastrous... potholes and dirt strips on all the secondary roads and absurd numbers of buses and dump trucks slowing down traffic on one-lane roads and highways that inexplicably disappeared in small towns, appearing again in arbitrary spots unmarked by any sort of sign or logical path.

So when I landed in Panama with my father-in-law I was a little dubious when we picked up the rental car. It was a ridiculous deal - just over twenty bucks a day after paying insurance - and it gave us a ton of flexibility to see the country, so it was pretty hard to pass up. Anyone who's backpacked around third world (or even second world) countries knows trying to time arrivals at bus stops and dealing with taxis and all that other bullshit can put some serious kinks in your plans and suck up a lot of time.

When you've got a car, you just jump in it and go. See a cool view? Pull over in your car, take some pictures, stretch your legs, buy a coke, talk with a local? Can't do that from a bus. On a bus you're probably next to some chickens and little kids staring at you while your bad knees are wedged into a metal seat in front of your for thirteen fuging hours because the buses are made for small Asian people and you're six-foot-one. (Don't take the bus from Manila to Legazpi in the Philippines... the $70 Air Cebu flight is worth it, I assure you.)

Anyway I digress. We drove straight out of Tocumen International and down the southern corridor, getting ripped off by toll booth after toll booth that peppered the freeway (this would be a continuing trend through the duration of the journey.) Glass-and-steel highrises leaped into view, and in a few minutes we'd driven into the heart of Panama City, which, save for the Spanish on everything, didn't look a bit different than downtown Miami. We dodged traffic down Balboa Avenue for a while, then got lost, then got mad, then stopped at a burrito shop and ate, and then jumped back in the car and managed to navigate over a bridge spanning the Panama Canal and, therefore, out of Panama City and on our way into the countryside.

I'm going to skip the entertaining parts of this story to tell you the boring stuff, because it sets the context for the entertaining parts, and they're really the bulk of this story. It wasn't actually boring, but it wasn't extraordinary... and the pictures will suffice. Unlike Peru or Laos or Australia I wasn't setting off on some great adventure. I was climbing a mountain or biking across a desert... none of that drama. Just cruising, taking pictures, and hopefully finishing writing that goddamn book. It's been almost a year now. Our completed itinerary:

Day One: drove out of Panama City, on excellent roads, detoured off the Pan-American highway up into a village called El Valle de Anton, chilled in a pub and spent the night up in the mountains and then left in the morning.

Day Two: drove across the entire country into the far western edge, stopping for the night in Vulcan, a town surrounded by volcanoes (go figure) in the western highlands, spending that evening watching the boring-ass bengals game in a bar and wondering if the young receptionist was hitting on me or if it was just my imagination (PhillyB = El Guapo en espanol.)

Day Three: drove a half loop on a tiny-ass cement track down the Panamanian side of the Panama-Costa Rica border, parked in a tiny-ass town called Paso Canoa (after accidentally driving into Costa Rica before clearing customs... oops) and walked across a tiny-ass border that is easily the most lax (and confusing) overland border I've ever dealt with. Took a bus into a beach town in southeastern Costa Rica, cooled our heels in a bay and walked down the runway of the local airstrip.

Day Four: took a boat back across the bay the mainland, waited two fuging hours for a bus (that's why car rentals are worth the expense) and got back through Panamanian customs by 4pm. Picked up the car, drove late into the night across the isthmus, up and over the continental divide through the thickest fog I've ever navigated in my life, plunging cliffs and sweeping gorges on either side, and into one of the most sketchy-ass towns I've ever seen on the Caribbean Sea, where we promptly departed for a different spot after I told the guy trying to sell us crack and whores to vamos and he got mad.

Day Five: drove all the way back down the freaking coast and over the mountains and back to Panama City. Long ass day.

Day Six: headed north of Panama City, near the Caribbean port of Colon, and then turned east, following the road along the sea to the tiny hamlet of Puertobello, the spot where the Spanish took gold they'd stolen from South American civilizations (the Spanish, you see, were asshats) and loaded them onto galleons bound for Spain. Two stone forts remain, replete with cannons; they protected the hold stores and fended off the English pirates that plied those waters. Legit Pirates of the Caribbean stuff. We stayed there for hours photographing everything and then drove out into the eastern wilderness, getting within 20 miles of the Darien before returning late to Panama City.

I have plans for the Darien... so I shall return.

Day Seven: Panama Canal. Freaking awesome.

Day Eight: returned the car, then went back to the guesthouse and goofed off. Low on money, I found a local salsa club that was mostly empty and drank dollar beers and worked on my book, then found a noisy rave party on the rooftop of our guesthouse and drank three dollar beers and sweated my ass off and went to bed at 4am. Check that off the list.

Day Nine: last full day. Explored Casco Viejo, the old colonial district. Watched football that night... fug you, John Fox. fug you.

Day Ten: flew home. Hugged my cat. Slept.

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But all that's expendable. The best stories are about the cops.

So Panama is pretty strict with its traffic laws. I've driven in Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, and in every single one of them I have blown by cops. They're woefully underpaid and they're there to respond to accidents (not prevent them) and murders and stuff. Unless they can extort a bribe from a foreigner, they just don't care. I remember blasting by a cop in the central highlands of Laos on a motorcycle and watching him laugh when he saw I was white. It's just not a concern.

But Panama sees things different, and from the first few miles outside of Panama City on that first day we saw speed traps set up with motorcycle cops manning them. The highways were of excellent quality - they could have easily been I-40 - and it was easy to speed, so I watched my speedometer. Or tried to.

I dropped down into the trough of a hill going about 110 kilometers per hour... the speed limit was seventy. And suddenly in my peripheral I spotted a blue-and-electric-yellow-clad cop dashed across the opposite lanes of traffic, one hand pointing a small radar gun at me and the other raised in the air, jumping in the air like a cartoon, demanding I pull over. So I pulled over. fug me.

This had happened in Peru under different circumstances, and I'd gotten out of a ticket by pretending to be a German national speaking German, and only German. But I decided not to wear that one out. "Buenos tardes," I greeted him, when he approached the window. "Esta problemo?" (My Spanish isn't that great.)

He rattled out a stream of Espanol and I caught velocidad. It was pretty obvious. "Passporte," he demanded, and I handed it over with my international driver's license and sat in the car while he texted my plate number to the police department (high-tech system they have going down there.) Then he waved me to come back to the car.

Grumbling profanities I walked back. "Speeding," he told me. "Ticketas... secente dollars." (Panama uses American dollars.)

I didn't want to pay seventy bucks. "Es no mio," I said, pointing to the car with a shrug. "Rental." I pronounced it rhen-tahl.

He looked at me funny. "No mio," I repeated, and then had an idea. I looked at the sun (which was freaking sweltering. "Caliente," I said. "Muy caliente." Then I switched to Spanglish: "Cervezas... cervases would be esta bien right now. Cervezas, para ti... y su compadres."

He stared at me and then his face split from ear to ear with a grin. I pulled out ten bucks. "The compadres will thank you," I said. "Beers for everyone. Cervezas para compadres de policia." I shook hands with him and passed the ten dollar bill from my palm to his, discreetly so as to avoid being seen by other drivers, and his grin widened and he slapped me on the shoulder. He pointed down the road and warned me of future speed traps. And then I pulled back out onto the road and we were off.

No ticket for me, beer money for him. I wish that tradeoff worked here.

So I watched my speed, and I was very mindful of it, so when I dropped over the crest of a hill on the way back from Costa Rica going 80kph, I knew the cop stepping into the road in front of me with his hand raised was full of poo.

I pulled over. "I'm not giving this bastard a dime," I told Rob, my father-in-law, and he laughed and fired up his camera to capture everything. I got out in bare feet (the clutch was a stiff son of a bitch and my sandals kept slipping off of it, so I drove in bare feet) and walked to the back of the car. He held up the radar gun. I read 95. Bullshit.

New strategy.

"No hablo espanol," I lied.

He told me I was speeding.

"Nationality?" I asked.

"No, no," he said, and repeated that I was speeding.

"United States," I answered, and eununciated carefully, "ee-stahd-ohs oo-nee-tahs. Estados Unitas."

"No no no no," he countered emphatically, wiping the sweat off of his fat forehead. He pointed at his radar with a fat finger. And, very carefully, he said "ninety-five."

"No no no no no no no," I responded, and walked over to his patrol car. The window was covered in road dust. I poked it with a finger and drew a giant 75 in it. He stared at me. "Secenta cinco," I declared. "Only seventy-five."

He responded with more nos, and I responded with a fervent declaration of my citizenship of the United States of America. Then I gave him a blank stare. Then he realized (as I'd hoped) that he was losing potential bribe money the longer he kept this idiot standing by the side of the road. Pointing with a sausage link finger into his palm for emphasis, he looked at me and stated, with the utmost seriousness, "LIMITAS. LA. VELOCIDAD."

"Limitas la velocidad! Si senor, muchas gracias, y viaje seguro! Buenas tardes!" And I waltzed back to the car while he glared at me suspiciously and we drove off.

fug da po-licia.

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Here's some fun pictures I took along the way


Sort of lost here, took the wrong route to El Valle de Anton on the first day and ended up on this dirt track that bottomed into a dry wash about 30km in. Barely made it through to the main road... these types of drives are not made for a Toyota Yaris. Hell of a view though


Caged toucan in El Valle, in front of the guesthouse. I'm not a fan of this picture because I couldn't get the cage bars out of the way of the lens, but it focused well enough and it's a toucan, so...


Incredible wind and water erosion near El Valle led to formations like this... small stones perched on top of columns of dirt. These were everywhere, and looked intentional if you weren't looking closely.


Costa Rican sky at dusk.


I grabbed this shot of a coconut floating offshore in a bay in Costa Rica... right after it a massive blue crab jumped out of a hole in front of it and scuttled across my foot and scared the living poo out of me, so I packed up the camera and called it a day after that. fug crabs.


Brightly-colored villas like this one peppered the countryside along the northern Caribbean coast

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Oil and vinegar - a standard table compliment on the Caribbean coast. This was taken just before lunch at an incredibly inexpensive seaside restaurant called the Black Pearl (complete with a ripped-off picture of Jack Sparrow. It became a pretty common sight.)


Interior corridor of soldiers' quarters at the out Spanish fort in Puertobello. Trash still lingered in the place in spite of the best efforts of the local officials...


One of the many cannons aimed out at the bay in protection.


Another cannon, and a tower on the northeastern wall.


A miniscule fishing boat floats off a dock in front of the Spanish fort in Puertobello.


A cannonade at the second fort, facing west at the bay entrance.

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My father-in-law purchasing a coconut in Puertobello. A dollar gets you a fresh one, hacked open with a machete, straw inserted, and later a spoon fashioned out of the shell to scoop out the inside.


At the Panama Canal, watching container ships transit the Miraflores Locks. You can't appreciate the magnitude of the engineering until you're actually there - especially when you realize the newest technology used to build it was made in 1913.


Trekking through the jungles of Sobriana National Park, north of Panama City.


Cathedral in Casco Viejo, Panama City's old colonial district.


The number one thing I've noticed about taking pictures of military personnel, police, or security forces in foreign countries is that they're almost always open to it because it gives them a chance to look all hardcore.


I found this kitty while photographing Panama City's colonial district... I let him play with my camera strap and made his day, and then he wouldn't leave me alone and subsequently made mine.

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Last but not least, here I am pretending not to speak any English while the cop tries to give me a ticket on the second time around. They scam me, I scam them.


Thanks to everyone who read!

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Can you finally tell me which DSLR you use?

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Can you finally tell me which DSLR you use?

It's not the camera. Any entry level DSLR can take pictures that look like that. PhillyB happens to have a solid eye for photography. That's the difference

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Wow, way to be Philly.. My hats off to you, handled yourself better than I would have. Ida paid the 1st cop & got pissed at the 2nd... Sounds like a really cool trip, the whole way around...

Between you & me.. You only turned down the crack & whoers cause of your father in law, right? You couldnt have got a 2-for especial?

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damn...I was hoping for more pictures of the "rental car"!!!!

awesome story and pics man

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Can you finally tell me which DSLR you use?

It's not the camera. Any entry level DSLR can take pictures that look like that. PhillyB happens to have a solid eye for photography. That's the difference

i purchased a sony NEX-5 in 2011 and it's perfect for what i do. entry-level DSLR, sony's release (minolta tech) onto the compact DSLR market and it pretty much blew everything else away. i don't like carrying a separate camera bag around when i travel, but i do carry a satchel with me whenever i'm out (in a foreign country) that has stuff like my passport and IDL in it, so i'm able to just keep it in there because it's so small (picture a large smartphone with a detachable lens) and i can pop it out on a moment's notice if i see something i want to shoot. there are much better options if you want to do any serious shooting, but for what i do this thing is absolutely perfect. best $400 i've ever spent in my life.

but zod is dead on. learn how to properly compose a photograph and that'll do far more than any expensive DSLR money can buy you. i always recommend people to an intro to art class if they're interested in photography... learning age old techniques of composition, layering, subjects, etc. is going to do a lot for the quality of your final product.

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