AN ORIGINAL FEATURE BY TRAVELPANAMANEWS
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Travelers who only read the standard tourists guides just might miss one of the country’s biggest secrets: that the northern city of Davíd is way better than those guides would have you believe.
Part of the issue is travel industry tradition. There’s a tendency to package Panama into a set of standardized boxes—the canal, Casco Viejo, the ruins, or Gamboa; and to a lesser extent, Boquete and Bocas.
Now don’t be mistaken—all of those places are a blast to experience.
There’s just a whole lot more to the country, and the Davíd area is a big part of it.
Gateway to Chiriquí Province
Beyond the brochures and tour packages, one of the best places you can explore is Davíd, the capitol of Chiriquí province, and home to nearly 200,000 people in the metropolitan area. It’s the gateway to both the northern highlands and the beaches and islands of the Pacific coast’s Gulf of Chiriquí.
As with the rest of Panama, the people make the place. I have met so many warm and welcoming people from Davíd who are just simply genuine. Many of the instructors at the reknowned Habla Ya Spanish school in Boquete and Bocas studied at the University of Chiriquí (UNACHI), and UNACHI is a long-time training institution for professional and technical careers through the northern and western provinces.
Davíd is also close to the roots of Panama’s traditional rural folkloric culture. The annual Fería Internacional de Davíd draws tens of thousands of people from all over the hemisphere and the world, along with a host of specialty food, costumes, dancing, music and more. The agricultural and livestock focus makes you think of a state fair in the midwestern United States, with an added dash of Panamanian cowboy culture thrown in for good measure.
For additional information, check out the Fería’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001801231392&sk=info.
Davíd is easily accessible from anywhere in the country. It’s about a seven hour drive from Panama City (doable, but not recommended unless you’re used to driving in Panama or you’re REALLY adventuresome).
Better options include buses, which are surprisingly good option. Our friends Kent and Carol traveled from Davíd to Panama City in March 2012 in a new, immaculate air-conditioned bus with HD television and great comfort.
Because I’m usually trying to maximize time, my favorite way to get to Davíd is to fly.
The flight is around fifty minutes and you get terrific views of the canal and Panama City on your way there or back as well as the mountains of the cordillera central, the islands of the Gulf of Chiriquí and the 11, 398 peak of Volcan Barú. The latest price around $80 plus tax and fees; check http://www.flyairpanama.com/panamatravel1.html for current information.
Part of the Real Panama
One of the most fascinating things you can do to catch a flavor of local Panamanian life beyond the tourist attractions is to hang out for a little while in the center of town for people watching and shopping.
Take a cab or drive and park near Parque Cervantes in the center of town. Bring a good street map so you don’t get lost, and double check your cross streets as you go.
Just follow the crowds up and down the streets with the mercados and tiendas overflowing with goods and produce, sometimes spilling out onto the streets. Brace yourself, because the blare of the salsa music from the radios and speakers can be really loud. But it’s all part of the scene and it’s what Panamanians themselves experience in this expressive, demonstrative, passionate province.
One tip: especially in the Panamanian summer (December through April/May), Davíd can be really hot. If you’re not used to the heat or get uncomfortable, early to mid mornings are best, followed by some cold beer or fruit drink at one of the city’s many air-conditioned restaurants.
Hidden Cultural Treasures
Some of the cultural exhibits coming out of Davíd these days are breathtaking.
A great place to start is www.chiriquicultural.com. It’s in Spanish but you can still see the current and upcoming art, photography and literary exhibitions, and there’s always Google Translator in a pinch. In addition to Venancio Méndez, you can also see works of Mario Calvit and many others. The site opens in Spanish but with the Google translate button you can quickly turn it into English or almost any other language.
Baseball in Davíd and Chiriquí
If it’s baseball season in Panama and you have the time, checking out the Chiricano baseball teams will open up another world. Take the fanaticism of Red Sox Nation, the disdain of the New York Yankees for the rest of professional baseball, and the carnival-like atmosphere of a Triple-A team in a good-sized market and you’ll have a mere glimpse of how baseball-crazy this town and province are.
In fact, baseball in Panama is so big that the national media headlines in the second week of May 2012 were not about the never-ending political controversies but Hall of Fame-bound Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera’s freak season-ending knee injury and whether or not he would return next year.
Make no mistake: these people are crazy about the two teams from Chiriquí, and the rest of the country equally so (although not in the same way!) My favorite boat captain in Bocas del Toro always forcefully reminds me that “Bocas is best, Los Santos OK, but NUNCA (never) Chiriquí!”
In January 2012 I was doing some shopping in Casco Viejo in Panama City when the shopkeeper looked at me and started talking to her friend. Since I speak Spanish (but at 6’2”, brown hair and green eyes, I might not look like it), I knew right away what they were talking about: my gorra de Chiriquí, or baseball cap.
“Chiriquí! En serio?” she asked with a smile. (Chiriqui? Are you serious?)
For sure, I replied, and quickly discovered that her team was arch-rival Panama Metro, while her friend was a fan of Veraguas.
Davideños are equally passionate about Chiriquí and Chiriquí Occidental (Chiriquí West). Each Panamanian province has a team at the professional level, and after the regular season there is a national playoff series that rivets the attention of the entire country. This year the winner was little-regarded Bocas del Toro, which hadn’t won the championship in fifty-one years and did it by beating the heavily favored Panama Metro in a thrilling seventh game this May. (The season starts up again in early 2013.)
This is something worth seeing. Estadio Kenny Serracin is only two blocks south of the Interamericana highway and a quick cab ride away from anywhere in Davíd or even from Boquete to the north. Always check the website at www.chiriquibeis.com for schedules and times. You can see where the National League All-Star, World Series MVP and Davíd native Carlos Rivera, catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, got his start.
Information and Resources
The best write-up I’ve seen so far is William Friar’s Mood Guide to Panama. A former Canal Zonian, he’s a little more attuned to the ins and outs of the provinces than some others. Try www.panamaguidebooks.com or www.moon.com for more information.
Like many places in Panama, there’s a lot more to Davíd than meets the eye if you take the opportunity to look. So the next time you’re on your way to Boquete, the Costa Rican border or the beaches in between, give Davíd a chance.
It’s time well worth taking.
All rights reserved 2012 by TravelPanamaNews™, TravelCloud© and Chiriquí Holdings International S.A., Republic of Panamá. All photographs are original by TravelPanamaNews unless otherwise credited.