PANAMA

Tracks - - Buzz - Pro­fes­sional surf-wriTer-de­gen­er­aTe, Jed smiTh, Takes us on a Tour of The world's mosT ex­oTic surf des­Ti­na­Tions. firsT uP, feel The ma­nia of Panama.

There's a lot to love about Panama if you're a surfer … just not right now. As I stood face to face with three black, and an­gry, and pos­si­bly armed pimps in a Bo­cas Del Toro back al­ley at 3am it was def­i­nitely not warmth I was feel­ing for this place.

Mo­ments ago, the two pros­ti­tutes I'd given money to for co­caine and blowjobs had taken off. Dressed in mini-skirts and plat­form shoes, the two women, both of African de­scent, had rounded the street cor­ner with their backs arched and the flaw­less body torque I'd first wit­nessed in the great Amer­i­can 200 me­tre run­ner, Michael John­son.

They'd eas­ily out­paced my com­padre and I, dis­ap­pear­ing into a ho­tel, into which we fol­lowed them, where­upon we were met with a less than help­ful clerk who seemed to know noth­ing of two pant­ing pros­ti­tutes in plat­form shoes and mini-skirts who must have just rushed in. I pressed him in­sis­tently. He made a phone call. The three pimps ar­rived. But I was not afraid. I com­plained to them as a short-changed cus­tomer is en­ti­tled to do. "I'm a far from af­flu­ent free­lancer writer," I told them, "and I paid good money for my co­caine and blowjobs. Now, what kind of busi­ness are you run­ning here?" I asked. Their re­ply, said with sneer­ing men­ace, was sim­ply: "Wel­come to Bo­cas."

Pay­ing for sex and drugs in Cen­tral Amer­ica might seem like a dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen but in Panama it is very much just part of the tourism ex­pe­ri­ence. Pros­ti­tu­tion is to­tally le­gal and govern­ment reg­u­lated here. Hook­ers carry li­censes, which they earn by get­ting reg­u­lar STI check ups, and they are re­quired to pay tax on their earn­ings (for a men­tal pic­ture of the prod­uct you're pay­ing for think some­thing along the lines of the Reef girls, who as it hap­pens were orig­i­nally from Panama). Shar­ing a bor­der with Colom­bia also makes Panama one of the world's co­caine cap­i­tals. A rock of Colom­bia's finest goes for around $USD5 in Panama City though most of it ends up here on its way be­yond Panama, via the fa­mous ship­ping canal, to the States and Europe. In fact the largest co­caine seizure of all-time was recorded just off the coast here in 2007 when 19.4 tonnes of pure blow was found on a cargo ship (pure coke re­tails for about $USD20,000 a kilo­gram. You do the math).

But all that was just a dis­trac­tion. We were here to surf and Panama is some­thing of a hid­den jewel in global surf travel. We'd landed on a tiny is­land off the coun­try's Caribbean coast, which we'd reached via the gut-wrenchingest of light plane rides. Due to the con­stant storm ac­tiv­ity in the Caribbean Sea, to the is­land's north is one of the most con­sis­tent zones in the world for chest to over­head waves (it's mostly windswell but the storms are fierce enough to bump it up to a mid-range wave pe­riod). The abun­dance of reef and beach break set ups here make for the ul­ti­mate wave park, pro­vid­ing ev­ery­thing from big wave bombies to wedgy reefs and whomp­ing tubu­lar beach breaks. Ev­ery­one from DriveThruSouth-Cen­tralAmer­ica to Ju­lian Wil­son, the Hob­goods, Archy, and Do­rian have passed through here. The dozen or so wharf-front bars that over­look the sur­real aqua­ma­rine wa­ter­way, with its flu­o­res­cent fish, also make it favourite on the tourist party trail. Af­ter a day of tubes and lay­back gouges, there are few bet­ter ways to spend an evening than with a pina co­lada in the sun­set and a steel drum ser­e­nade (and maybe a gi­ant line of the pow-pow if you're that way in­clined).

At its widest point Panama is just 177 kilo­me­tres from coast to coast, mean­ing if there's a swell on the Pa­cific side you're only a five-hour drive away. The wave we ven­tured to was sit­u­ated at a river­mouth home to a large hous­ing project. The river is also one of the clos­est ac­cess points for drug run­ners com­ing to Panama from Columbia. Our guide told us he'd of­ten seen them fly­ing up here in speed­boats full of blow, some­times while shoot­ing it out with cops. When they reach the shores of the hous­ing project they dump the bun­dles on the shore for the poor, pre­dom­i­nately black, in­hab­i­tants to carry up and stash in safe houses. It is later col­lected and shipped out via the Panama ship­ping canal. The wave was fun, a wedgy left-hand reef that ran a fair way. On the boat ride back we passed an over­turned ca­noe rid­dled with bul­let holes as well as the is­land lair home to the vil­lain in 007 Quan­tum of So­lace.

That night as we drove home I was jerked out of sleep by the van com­ing to an abrupt halt. Out­side be­neath flood­lights a car­load of black men was be­ing frisked at gun­point by po­lice com­man­dos. We'd stum­bled into a drug raid and it was no joke. Our guide pointed to the way the cops were hold­ing their ma­chine guns: with their fin­gers poised over the trig­gers. They were ex­pect­ing an am­bush.

For the most part Panama is safe, or at least a lot safer than other Cen­tral Amer­i­can surf faves like El Sal­vador and Nicaragua. Mostly it's be­cause of the ship­ping chan­nel here, which Amer­ica owns and is com­mit­ted to keep­ing open and sta­ble. In 1989 this was one of the rea­sons Amer­ica in­vaded Panama along with ar­rest­ing the na­tion's leader Manuel Nor­iega for what they said were drug traf­fick­ing of­fences. To­day, Panama re­mains tied to the US dol­lar and ben­e­fits from the sta­bil­ity and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence of the su­per­power but there are still pock­ets of des­ti­tu­tion. Things got awk­ward when the com­man­dos told us our van matched the de­scrip­tion of the one they were look­ing for, and more awk­ward again when he asked our Amer­i­can driver for his li­cense … only to find he'd left it at home with his wal­let. Our Pana­ma­nian guide ex­ited the car and en­gaged in a flow­ing Span­ish di­a­logue, the com­mando never tak­ing his fin­ger off the trig­ger. Even­tu­ally he cracked a smile and he waved us off with his ma­chine gun. Op­po­site: Jack Free­stone in a Panama pit. This page: Panama of­fers ev­ery­thing you'd want in a surf­ing so­journ – gleam­ing tubes, in­trigu­ing lo­cals and nat­u­ral won­ders.

Just be sure to choose your planes care­fully. || all pho­tos Dun­can Mac­far­lane

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