Junction towns rarely get a mention in travelogues, and if they do, they're generally just footnotes. Even in the guidebooks, towns without obvious tourist attractions get short shrift, and it's pretty clear that the authors don't spend much time hanging round there... like everyone else on the trail, it seems.
But junction towns have one huge advantage for the weary traveller, and it's this: when you reach a junction town, you can do whatever you want without feeling remotely guilty, and that's a really novel feeling on the road. When you visit a normal travellers' destination, there's usually a reason why it's a travellers' destination, whether it's the hiking, or the beaches, or the architecture, or the local culture, or whatever it is that makes this place worth exploring rather than, say, just spending your time lying in bed or drinking beer in the bar next to your hotel. And this means that if you do spend your time lying in bed or drinking beer in the bar next to your hotel, then you feel guilty, because you should be hiking, or exploring the beach, or checking out the architecture, or soaking up the local culture, or whatever it is that makes this place worth exploring rather than, say, just spending your time lying in bed or drinking beer in the bar next to your hotel.
But the junction town, which only gets one-and-a-half columns in the country guidebook and no mention at all in the region guidebook, doesn't suffer from any touristic pretensions. This means that you can rock up at the bus stop, pick any hotel that takes your fancy, and go and do what the hell you like – such as, say, spending your time lying in bed or drinking beer in the bar next to your hotel – safe in the knowledge that you won't bump into any irritating know-it-alls down the trail who'll say, 'What, you went there and you didn't see X and Y? Oh, they were the most amazing things ever! Really, you haven't lived until you've seen them...'
God bless the junction town. It's the perfect place to get away from the travelling for a while.
Santiago to the Rescue
Our choice of junction town in Panama was Santiago. Panama is a famously long and thin country that's broadly in the shape of an elongated S rotated anticlockwise through 90°, and the Pan-American Highway, which passes all the way through Central America like the brown intestinal line in a prawn, follows the southern edge of that S from Costa Rica in the west to Darien in the east. (Here it grinds to a halt and doesn't start up again until Turbo in Colombia, which is the only break in the journey from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego; the Panama-Colombia border is no longer open, unless you're a member of a drug cartel.) If you're travelling through Panama then you can't avoid the Pan-American, but while there are plenty of attractions on the coast of Panama and up in the northern hills, there are precious few on the Pan-American itself, particularly in the western half.
So if, like us, you're trying to get from western Panama to Panama City and you want to visit, say, the pretty coastline of the Peninsula de Azuero, then you're either going to have a very, very long day on the buses, or you're going to have to take a break somewhere convenient like Santiago, the capital city of the state of Veraguas. And that's why we found ourselves staying in a hotel right next to the Pan-American Highway, sandwiched between McDonald's and KFC, and opposite a noisy and grotty little drinking hole called La Candela Viva ('The Live Candle').
To be honest, it was brilliant. When we arrived in Santiago after four hours on the bus, we originally followed the advice in the Lonely Planet, which recommended a disgusting dive quite a way of out town where the young receptionist was so miserable it looked like she'd had a stroke, but I took one look at the room and told Peta I'd rather walk back to the highway in the blinding heat of the afternoon sun than stay there... so that's what we did. Five minutes later we'd taken a cab to the Hotel San David, much nearer the centre of town, and booked into a lovely little room off a pretty little garden; so, safe in the knowledge that we had a room for the night, we hit the town.
We didn't get far, because La Candela Viva was directly opposite the hotel, and it looked so grungy we couldn't pass it up. The chairs were plastic, the clientele were seriously drunk, and the traffic on the Pan-American shot past so fast that it made the bottles rattle, but it was just 75 cents for an ice-cold bottle of beer, the service was efficient and the local characters were fascinating, so we settled in for one, two, three, four... well, a number of beers, and watched the locals drink their way through mountains of local lager before getting into their cars, directly under the sign saying 'Don't drink and drive'. And all the while excruciatingly loud Panamanian folk music poured out of a speaker above the entrance, pounding the dusty courtyard where we sat with one accordion-based song after another, drowning out the paralytic dribbling of the zonked group of locals in the corner until they too squashed themselves into a car and pulled out into the motorway traffic with an over-revving of the engine and a crunching of the clutch.
Once night fell and the moon came out, we hopped back over the highway and into the hotel, and had an excellent steak meal in the hotel restaurant, neatly sidestepping the neighbouring lure of the golden arches and the mighty colonel, and then it was off to bed for a genuinely silent night, miles away from the busy road. We'd done nothing except arrive, find a hotel, drink beer and eat food, and we revelled in it without a hint of guilt that we should be doing something more worthy. Sometimes the junction town is just what you need, and Santiago was the right place at the right time. Right on!