A Weekend in Panama

Published: June 11th 2013
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When I was in graduate school at the University of Texas I made friends from all over the US. But our little group of structural engineers also included Alejandro, who was from Panama. Alejandro spoke perfect English and was a pretty sharp guy. We went on some good adventures back in those days, but after I graduated I moved to Las Vegas and Alejandro stayed around to get his PhD. We kept in touch though and when he told me he was moving back to Panama after he got his PhD I was eager to pay him a visit. Already planning a trip to Peru, I figured the best thing to do was stop in Panama for a few days on my way back to the US. I could get a nonstop flight from Panama City to Washington DC so that was a bonus.

On our last morning in Peru Sarah, Mason, Cory and I part ways. Mason and Cory are headed to Santiago, Chile, the exact opposite direction of the US, while Sarah is headed for the US embassy in Lima so she can get a temporary passport and get out of Peru (see "Adventure in the Peruvian Amazon). Since I was using my United rewards to get from Lima to Panama City I had booked Lima to Cuzco round trip on LAN airlines, one of the biggest South American airlines. The flight to Cuzco two weeks ago got delayed about an hour. No big deal, happens all the time. But what happens in the Cuzco airport on my flight back to Lima is ridiculous.

The Cuzco airport is tiny. Other than a flight every half hour to Lima, there are only like 4 other flights to other cities per day total. You'd think a small airport would be easy to run. Apparently not. The place is a zoo, and nobody seems to be in control of anything. I find a seat by gate to wait for the plane. That's when the delay is announced. The plane hasn't arrived yet, we are going to be delayed. For how long? They don't know. Well where's the plane coming from? They don't know. Where's the plane now? Once again, they have no idea. "So you have no idea where the plane is coming from or where it currently is?" I ask. "That's right, sir. We apologize." This information freaks everyone out. Everyone has to catch a connecting flight in Lima. But I have an even bigger problem. My connection isn't on LAN. I have to get my bags in Lima and go through Security again for my flight on Copa Airlines to Panama City. I've given myself about 3 hours in Lima. But things aren't looking good here. How the hell do they not know where their plane is?

Everyone lines up at the desk to get on the waiting list for the next available flight to Lima. Luckily I am quick and get put third on the list. Now it's a waiting game for the other planes. Hopefully some people don't show up. The plane that was supposed to be next after my plane leaves full. Still no sign of my plane. I talk to the other people on my flight about where they're going and where they're from. Nobody is exactly happy at this point. The next plane leaves with one person from our plane, the woman who was number 1 on the standby list. It's been over an hour since our plane was supposed to take off now, but I can still make it if I get on the next flight.

The next plane boards and my prayers are answered. There are two open seats so number 2 and number 3 get to board, and that means me. The LAN clerk assures me that my bags will be put on this plane (I have checked my backpack and other suitcase). I am a bit worried but I have the baggage tag so everything should be okay. As soon as I'm in my seat we taxi out to the run way and we're headed to Lima. I can still make my connection to Panama City.

We arrive in Lima and I hurry down to baggage claim. I've got about an hour and a half before my flight to Panama and I have to check in again. The bags start to come out and I just know that I'm not going to see my bags. The woman said they'd be here, but I have the feeling she was full of BS and was just saying what she was supposed to say to please me, the customer. Sure enough I'm right. My bags are nowhere to be found. Who knows where they are. Probably on a non-LAN
Concrete Cylinders from the CanalConcrete Cylinders from the CanalConcrete Cylinders from the Canal

Actual concrete cores from the Panama Canal
flight for all I know. Now I've got a decision to make. Do I fly on to Panama City and hope LAN can send me my bags or do I wait in the desperate attempt to find them?

I've already checked on the next flight to Panama, it's at 5:30, a solid three and a half hours after the 2:00 one I'm on. It's almost 1:00 and I'm running out of time. I find an LAN employee who speaks English and explain my situation. He makes some calls but doesn't find out where my bags are. He takes my baggage tag and heads off for a while, coming back with no good news. I have to make up my mind now. Change flights or go without bags. Either way I have to exit the secure area. I really don't want to wear the same clothes all weekend in Panama so I dart out of baggage claim and head upstairs to check in. Luckily no one is waiting at the Copa desk and they are able to move me to the later flight for no fee, buying myself another 3.5 hours to find my bags.

I head back down

At 3.2% alcohol it pretty much is sober beer
to baggage claim but they won't let me in. The LAN employee finds me and says he is working on getting my bags. But I'm getting nervous. This airline is so unorganized. No one knows what's going on. I mean they still don't know what happened to the plane I was supposed to be on. I text Alejandro and tell him I am on the later flight and ask for his address in case LAN has to mail me my bags. I spend the next 45 minutes anxiously waiting by the door to baggage claim. I see a few people I talked to in Cuzco. They have already missed their connections. I am about to give up all hope when the LAN employee comes back to me carrying a backpack and a small suitcase. My bags! Who knows what plane they were on but they made it. I thank him for helping me out when no one else would and go back up to Copa to check them to Panama. The 2:00 flight has just left, so I can't get back on that plane, but I'm just thankful I have my bags after that ordeal. I check in and head to a food court where I devour a Peruvian half chicken. Then it's time for a nap at the gate. Next stop: Panama City.

Alejandro picks me up from the airport a little before 9:00 at night. Immigration control actually takes a while at the airport. He lives close to downtown, which is not well defined in Panama City. Skyscrapers are everywhere, mostly apartments and condos. It reminds me a lot of Miami. It's kind of rainy this first night, but it's a nice looking city. We're staying in to relax tonight. Alejandro and his wife, Analissa, had a baby about six months ago. I meet little Alessia and try to teach her some English. For the first time on my trip since that first night in Houston I have my own room so I spread out to relax and get some rest.

Saturday morning Alejandro takes me out to Panama's main tourist attraction, the Panama Canal. It's been operating for almost 100 years now and is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. It's incredible to think how it was constructed 100 years ago without the technology we have today. It was actually built by the United States. Maybe that's why Panama uses our currency, which I didn't know till I got there. The original canal still works fine, but due to the increasing volume of ships needing passage through the canal a big expansion project is underway.

The canal is crowded with tourists, but that's to be expected, especially since it's a Saturday. We head outside immediately to see the passage of a cargo ship through the canal. There are two sets of hydraulic gates separating the "high" side from the "low" side, with the adjustable level in the middle, making what is called a "lock." The ship is already in the middle when we arrive and the water level is low. It takes about 20 minutes for the water between the gates to rise to the level of the high side. And with that the gates on the high side are open and the ship continues on it's way. There are multiple sets of locks along the canal. You would think that since both sides of the canal are at sea level that the water level shouldn't need to rise. But the elevation across the land excavated for the canal was not even close to level, so instead of excavating more and making a deep canyon of the canal, they chose to install these lock systems to keep the canal near ground level.

After watching the ship pass we head inside to the museum where I learn a little more about this history behind the canal. Alejandro has been here a million times so he could probably give a tour, which is nice since he acts as my guide. After walking around and looking at the exhibits for a while we leave the canal and go downtown to meet Analissa for lunch. We spend the rest of the afternoon driving around the city and running some errands. We have to pick up beer for tomorrow. We're going to some islands off the coast on the Caribbean side. We have to get up really early, 5:30, which I'm used to by now, but we're still going to go out. I drink an array of Panamanian beers at Alejandro's place and they feed me as we wait for Analissa's mother to come over and watch the baby so we can go out.

Our first stop is a little brewhouse that makes its own beer where we meet up with some of Alejandro's friends for some drinks and food. I order a sampler tray of all their beers and they're all pretty good. It's just like any brewhouse in the States except the menu is in Spanish. After a few beers we head to one of Alejandro and Analissa's typical spots: Elite gentlemen's club. Now I've been to my fair share of gentlemen's clubs living in Las Vegas and all, but this was not my choice. Analissa's best friend from high school actually owns the place, which she inherited from her father after he passed away. They go here all the time. And when they tell me that's it's $30 to get in but open bar once you're in I'm all for it. What a deal!

We get a big area to sit and I order the first of many Atlas's, my Panamanian beer of choice. The club is actually loaded with what looks like American bachelor parties. And thinking about it, it's a lot closer than Vegas for some people. Hell it's only a four hour flight from DC. I decide that if I ever get married I'll come here for my bachelor party. There are a lot of girls in the club and Alejandro says something to this one girl that I had said was the best looking and she comes over and sits with me. But she barely speaks English. So Alejandro does some translating. How awkward is that? Stripper on your lap with your friend serving as translator.

Before I know it I've had like 9 Atlas's. Alejandro and friends left a while ago and I said I wanted to stay longer and I'd meet him back at his place. I end up not spending too much money, which is good because I've had a lot to drink. I finally leave around 2:00 AM and hop in a cab. The driver doesn't really speak English either and he doesn't know where Alejandro's address is. So after aimlessly driving around the neighborhood I call Alejandro and he walks the driver through how to get to his place. Alejandro tells me I'm crazy since we have to get up in 3.5 hours. I tell him it was worth it and about the new love of my life and it's time for bed.

5:30 AM comes way too soon. I'm still drunk. We pack the cooler with beer and food and head out on our way. We have to pick up one of Aljandro's friends and then meet up at a grocery store with another car of friends. Analissa can't come because she is on baby duty. Alejandro lucked out of baby duty all day because I was in town! We pick up a few more things at the store and hit the road around 6:30.

Our destination is the San Blas Islands ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Blas_Islands), a collection of small islands off the coast of Panama on the Caribbean side. Only some of the islands are inhabited (by indigenous people the Kuna Indians). They make money allowing travelers to the islands to enjoy their beauty. And by small islands I mean small. Like the size of a basketball court small for some of them. Some are bigger, but most are really small, and consist of nothing but palm trees and beach.

I sleep the whole way there, which is good because I need it, and by the time we arrive around 9:30 I'm feeling much better. Alejandro has been here before so he's already got a guy with a boat who will take us out to the islands and pick us up at designated times. We pay him $20 each and load up the boat with our coolers. It was stormy the night before and the dock area is pretty muddy. It doesn't look too nice. We set off in the motorboat and I can see some islands in the distance. The water is still brown though. It's kinda gross. Then all of a sudden we hit a line where the water turns from brown to turquoise, the Caribbean color I was expecting. Much better!

As we cruise on the boat we pass a number of islands covered with wooden shacks. These are the inhabited islands. It would be cool to walk around and explore one of these islands but the Kuna don't let the visitors on these, only the smaller uninhabited ones. It seems like we are on the boat for about a half hour when we arrive at our island. I can't see the mainland, so we are pretty far out. The island is maybe the size of a football field. Some of the Kuna man the island during the day and have a little shop that sells food/drinks and handmade crafts. To my surprise, there is also a working bathroom on the island. But other than that, it is just palm trees and sand, with a little grass randomly sticking out of the ground. It's the kind of island that you imagine getting stranded on after your plane crashes in your nightmares. And it's awesome.

We have about two hours on this island before our ride picks us up to change islands. We claim a little canopy with a picnic table and bust open the coolers. It's not quite noon, and I'm not feeling too great from last night, but how often to I get to drink on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere? I bust out some Panamanian beer and take a walk around the island, which doesn't take long. There are quite a few other groups on the island and everyone seems to be having a good time. This is one of the things to do when you live in Panama, so the little islands can get pretty crowded. I find a nice spot on the best beach to lay down and enjoy the scenery (in more ways that one...). I notice some groups drinking Coor's Light. I'm surprised they get Coor's down here, but I'm even more surprised that it's a normal shaped can. Coor's has a tall can, different than other beers. But not in Panama. Weird!

We swim out to a little shipwreck a good 20 meters off the coast of the island and do some snorkeling. The fish seem to really like the sunken ship, which is covered in barnacles and vegetation. After lunch and a few more beers our boat is back to pick us up. We head out further from the mainland. Alejandro tells me we're going to a little area in the sea where starfish are abundant. It's an area where it's shallower than normal, and this apparently creates prime starfish territory. We jump off the boat to swim around. These starfish are everywhere. I've never seen them in the wild before. Starfish just don't seem like they're living. They look more like a crazy rock. They feel like rock too. We pick a few up to take pictures of them. I'm told not to take them out of the water for more than a second or two or they can die. I'm not sure if this is true but I obey.

After hanging out with the starfish for a while we head over to another island closer to the mainland. This island is bigger. There's even a restaurant on it and some huts you can rent out for the night. Multiple people are also camping out on the island as we see tents everywhere. It's got a nice beach though, and I lay down in the sand while the other guys go to get some food at the restaurant. We are on this island for a maybe an hour and a half before our ride comes to pick us up and take us back to the mainland, a successful day at the San Blas Islands in the books.

Being awake for the drive back this time, I notice how scenic the road is. We are driving through a hills on the edges of a dense jungle. It's a pretty beautiful drive and we arrive back in the city before dark. Given the events of last night, I'm exhausted. I veg out on the couch the rest of the night with Alessia and get to bed early. Tomorrow I have to go back to DC. Back to reality. This has been the longest vacation of my life. But it's not over quite yet.

Monday morning Alejandro has to go do some work. He's a professor of structural engineering at the local college and has some stuff to take care of. He drops me off at the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a little national park pretty much right in the city. Guess I'm not done with the jungle just yet. I walk around on some trails through the park and actually spot some wildlife, including a capybara, that big ugly rodent! There is a great view of downtown Panama City from the park. I'm amazed at how big it is. It's really a lot like Miami. Definitely more Americanized than anywhere else in Central America.

I hop in a cab at the park entrance and head back downtown. I have the driver drop me off at a random hotel so I can walk around the city a bit. I walk all over the place, looking up at the skyscrapers, and grabbing a quick lunch at Hooter's, since I like checking out international Hooter's if you remember. They even have a Virginia Tech flag! My favorite Hooter's by far. I walk over to the Hard Rock Hotel, which is brand new and looks it. They let me up to check out the pool area and it's pretty nice. I wish I could stay longer but I've got to get moving. Next I walk over to the Trump Tower, which is also new and is the tallest building in Central America at almost 70 stories (all of the tallest buildings in Central American are in Panama...). It's just as fancy as you'd expect a Trump Tower to be and I head up to the pool for a drink and to relax for a bit. As much as I hate being at anything Donald Trump makes money off of it's actually pretty nice and I spend about a half hour up there before taking a cab back to Alejandro's place.

And just like that my weekend in Panama is over. Alejandro drives me back to the airport for my flight back to DC. Luckily it's a nonstop flight and only takes about four hours. I get home pretty late, exhausted from a great two week trip in Peru and Panama. The next day it's 33 degrees in DC as I'm playing an outdoor soccer game at night. My fingers and toes go numb and I'm as close to frostbite as I've ever been. Lesson learned. Don't hike around the hot, humid Panamanian jungle one day and try to play a soccer game in freezing temperatures the next. I survived, but that was painful.

Panama City was a really cool city that I'm sure is unlike anywhere else in Central America. It's like America junior, except they speak Spanish. I still think I'll consider going back there for a bachelor party one day, or suggest it for one of my friends'. If I get to go back one day I'd like to explore more outside of the city, maybe the northern part of the country. If you're there I highly recommend the San Blas islands though. And if you end up at that gentlemen's club, tell them I said hi.

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