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Published: March 25th 2016
It was finally time to leave South America. Though fun and although I had seen and done some amazing things, there were elements of frustration that accompanied me throughout my time there. This continued right up until the last, having had my water bottle, my universal adaptor and flip-flops nicked within a few days. WTF backpacker people. For good measure, South America decided to give me a final dose of bedbug bites to send me on my way.
To be completely honest, I felt that I had had my fill of South America and that I was ready to move onto somewhere new. But South America hadn’t had its fill of me and did everything it could to stop me from leaving.
Crossing from Colombia to Panama is notoriously difficult and a pain in the arse, involving high costs, long distances, danger and many a connection with little of interest in between. Crossing the Darien Gap independently can take up to a couple of days, a couple of days I would rather use doing other things.
Like sailing to Panama from Cartagena via some stops in the beautiful and deserted San Blas Islands. Except that this would cost even more
Old Colonial Building
Resembling the type of crumbling, old, colonial bar you see in poor Latin American countries in the movies.
time and money – five days and US$550 to be exact – and given that right now was windy season on the high seas, there was no guarantee that your boat would leave on its scheduled day.
So in the end I opted for a one-hour US$366 flight.
Through my research, I knew that to enter Panama, I would need a pre-booked, onward journey out of the country and that airlines are very particular about it.
Call it complacency or laziness (or both) but I had forgotten to book something and when I got to the airport in Santa Marta, I was told at the check-in desk that they couldn’t check me onto my flight to Panama City without something.
Cue an internal freakout that was partly subdued thanks to the fact that they could still check me into my flight to Bogota, from where I was ultimately catching my flight to Panama City. So I had the time before boarding my flight here and my connection time in Bogota, to try and hastily sort something out. So I now had a stressful three hours to sit through hoping that I would be let onto my flight to Panama
The Panama Canal
Important and famous, but not so spectacular.
City in Bogota. If I missed this flight, it would be US$366 down the drain and the purchase of another flight – as well as having to purchase another onward journey out of Panama. So in other words, another very expensive mistake
Accompanying me at the airport was a British guy who just happened to be a pilot and had been in my situation before in the past. He suggested that I use the internet here rather than at Bogota Airport, which was apparently shit, to book something online – but rather than actually buying an actual plane ticket, simply printscreen the last web page before clicking “Buy”, and to show this print screen at the check-in desk in Bogota.
So that was exactly what I did.
In Bogota, I approached the check-in desk.
“Do you have an onward journey from Panama?” asked the friendly lady behind the counter.
“Why yes”, I replied, and handed her my phone with the printscreen.
Hoping she would just glance at the “ticket” before handing me back my phone, she made me sweat by taking a good minute carefully scrutinising my screen. Then came the dreaded words.
“Where is your reservation number
“I have it
Cathedral Tower Of Panama Viejo
Restored after the old city was sacked by Henry Morgan in 1671.
in my email, but I don’t currently have wifi to access it right now, but I do have it in my inbox…I just can’t show it to you right now.”
She had already sent my backpack through.
“Hmmmm…” she pondered.
Then the magic words.
“OK, no problem, you can board the plane.”
Expensive mistake avoided.
Speaking of expensive, I almost wanted to cry when I discovered how expensive things are in Panama City.
I had missed the last MetroBus into town so I had no choice but to take a taxi. Having just come from Colombia where no city taxi ever cost more than about US$7, the cheapest I was quoted to get to my hostel was US$20. A whole day’s budget in Colombia. Bitter pill.
It wasn’t even my own taxi either, it was a colectivo
The neighbourhood that my hostel was in was Marbella and was where all the office towers and flash apartment blocks were located. In other words, a really nice, safe neighbourhood. It was like being in Miami but with all the signs in Spanish – although in saying that, there is a lot more English spoken here than in Colombia,
Foot and cycle path connecting Marbella, my neighbourhood, and the Casco Viejo.
a legacy perhaps of the US influence here which includes the famous Panama Canal and the fact that US dollars is the official currency here. From what I had seen at the airport, this was a place where wealthy and middle-class American families bring their kids on holiday. It certainly felt more like the USA than Latin America.
I almost felt a little out of place as a backpacker!
The next day I made the nice walk along the Cinta Costera, a special foot and cycling path along the water down from Marbella to the Casco Viejo, the old town, which was established following the sacking of the original city – which is now a set of ruins called Panama Viejo – by Henry Morgan (he of Captain Morgan fame) in 1671.
Along the way, I stopped at the Mercado de Mariscos for lunch where I probably overpaid a bit for ceviche (not as good as it is in Peru
), my Caribbean-style, coconut, octopus stew (a bit too salty) and a local lemonade. $US22 to be exact. Panama was already hitting my wallet hard.
Described as a “work-in-progress” by Lonely Planet, this was an accurate description of the
New & Old
A restored building next to a crumbling one in the Casco Viejo.
A third of it is made up of run-down and abandoned colonial buildings that were once splendiferous but still retain their old charm. Half of these buildings are in the process of being renovated and restored.
The second third is made up of colonial buildings that have been restored to their former glory with a few mod-cons to boot. Some of them are beautiful, all of them are colourful. Once all the crummy buildings – some of which are currently being lived-in in squatter-like conditions – are all fully restored, Panama City’s Casco Viejo will look a lot like Cartagena
The final third of the Casco Viejo is annoyingly closed off to the public forcing you to take irritating detours, because it falls within the compound of the Presidential Palace.
Overall however, the place is a pleasant stroll – very touristy, but very beautiful.
To cool you down as you walk the streets, there are vendors on the street selling you raspados
– shaved ice flavoured with syrup and condensed milk which were deliciously refreshing. Hopefully I won’t get sick from it!
Other than the ubiquitous panama hat
– which aren’t even from Panama but are
Plaza de la Independencia
Main square in the Casco Viejo, with the cathedral in the background.
actually from Cuenca, Ecuador
– the other thing that Panama is most famous for is the famous Panama Canal.
Completed in 1914, the canal became the easiest way for ships to get from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean and vice versa, and thus made Panama and Panama City a centre of international business and trade.
13,000 ships pass through the canal each year, all of them having been built to the dimensions of the canal’s locks. Even with the advent of air travel, the canal still retains its importance – it brought in US$2bn of revenue in 2010 alone.
An engineering marvel, the canal stretches from Panama City on the Pacific coast to Colon on the Atlantic coast.
The canal is a must-see for its fame and importance…but as a sight itself, it is pretty ordinary and disappointing. I did get to see three ships go through – which takes about 30 minutes each – and got to see the locks fill up and empty out water as the ships passed through, through the hordes of tourists peering down from the bleachers and viewpoints onto the Miraflores Locks.
Otherwise it really is just a canal. A
man-made body of water. So perhaps it is not surprising that it doesn’t exactly blow you away.
Also ordinary and disappointing is the Parque Metropolitano. Supposedly a wildlife haven, I saw just one sloth and some turtles – and the mirador
at the top of the park had its view obstructed by trees. The park itself looked pretty ordinary as well – just some paths through the forest.
I got to share this experience with Caroline, an Irish girl who was on my tour of the canal, so at least I got some good chat as well as some good exercise out of it.
I always like trying out the local dishes wherever I go but the only Panamanian dish of note that I got to try was soncacho
, a rather ordinary meat and vegetable soup.
This was because Panama City is awash with American fast food chains.
Normally, I would scoff at this kind of thing – but not this time. Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr are quite possibly my three favourite fast food chains and they were all here. I haven’t had Taco Bell for years and it has been at least a year since
One of the landmark buildings in the Casco Viejo.
I had Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr. They are also the cheapest eats you can get bar street food and some local cafes.
So I had all three during my stay in Panama City – and it was delicious.
I did nothing but swim, eat, watch football and blog on my penultimate day – and El Mahico Hostel is a great place to do all three. One of the better hostels I have stayed at so far for sure – really helpful staff, an awesomely clean pool and a first hot shower for three weeks! Definitely recommended.
They even lent me a Rapi Pass card for the public transport system (the metro system is good although it could do with expanding to get to more parts of the city) which I used to visit Panama Viejo on my final day.
Panama Viejo is where the Spanish originally built their city in 1519 and was an important trading hub with warehouses full of foreign goods – which made it a target for pirates and in 1671, the original city was sacked by Henry Morgan and after, the Spanish moved the city to the Casco Viejo.
The ruins themselves were relatively
Iglesia de San Francisco
Beautiful old church in the Casco Viejo.
interesting and it was good to learn more about the history of the city, to read about how people in the city lived their lives and imagine the ruins coming to life – to imagine what the city would have looked like. The ruins cover a fairly large area and the main roads of the city are still visible.
Overall, I have to say that I quite liked Panama City; the infrastructure is excellent, much better than in most of South America and I definitely appreciated it. There is a lot of English spoken here too, thanks to the large amounts of American tourists and this was also quite nice for a change.
Most of these said American tourists don’t really hang out too long in Panama City – they usually go to Bocas del Toro – which is where I am heading next!
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