You'll Never Guess What the U.S.A. Gave Away
Panama City, Panama
Panama City: a gateway city infamously known for the Panama Canal. This will be our last stop in Central America before we depart on our boat trip through the San Blas Islands, to Colombia. We rolled into Panama City on the nicest bus I have ever been on; a fitting entrance into a city which is experiencing a significant transformation to becoming a world class city. We had heard a lot about Panama City from many people and were excited to see it. From the moment we stepped off the bus in a new, modern, and clean bus terminal we new that Panama City was going to be different than other cities of Central America. The bus terminal was attached to a mall, which worked out well for us as the screws in the back of my laptop were coming loose and the bottom protective plate was prone to falling off. Rose also needed a new phone case, as her case was crumbling apart - the wear and tear on our clothing and gear is clearly evident, and we have only been on the road for a little over two months. The mall was PACKED! It was friday night, three weeks before Christmas, and everyone was shopping.
After our short mall diversion we took a cab to our hostel, in Casco Viejo. A clean, comfortable, and relatively quiet place. We shared a dorm room, which was fine - a lot of times the price of a private room is only marginally more than the price of two beds in a dorm room, so we will opt for the private, but when the price is right we will save a few bucks and go for the bunks. We try and weedout the “party hostels” when we look for places, and this place fit the bill. For us, because we aren't partying in the evenings, staying at a "party hostel" can get extremely irritating when people continually roll in from 1-4am. That being said, it is probably equally irritating for those people when Rose and I are packing up our stuff at 7am - It's just better for everyone if you can find a hostel which caters more to your travel style. Our first night in Panama City we spent the evening wandering the newly restored Spanish Colonial district of Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo is "the" place to be in Panama City if you want to be where all of the travelers, expats, and wealthy Panamanians are. It is a beautiful area with lots of stores, restaurants, and museums. It goes without saying, but Casco Viejo is not a good analogue for what Panama City is to the locals. That being said, it is a great place to enjoy a couple days.
Saturday morning we left our hostel in search of breakfast. We found what looked like a modern somewhat busy restaurant, and I ordered Huevos Rancheros. What I got was eggs and sliced hotdog... For me, a crap breakfast is the WORST! Not only was the breakfast utter garbage, it was very expensive because it was at a boutique restaurant in a tourist hotspot. Immediately I was kicking myself for not knowing better. How many times do I have to learn this lesson!? NEVER EAT IN A POPULAR/TOURISTY AREA. The touristy places, with minor exception, are terrible. It is always better to seek out where the locals are eating; the food will be better and the price will be WAY better. Not only was the food terrible at this place but so was the coffee, which is a real disgrace because the coffee through all of Costa Rica and Panama has been sensational - not an exaggeration. I am not someone who flaunts after the best coffee, nor do I drink coffee regularly, but the coffees I've had in Costa Rica and Panama have been out of this world. It doesn't matter if you are at a hole in the wall place our a nice restaurant, the coffee is superb everywhere; it is like a religion in this part of the world. As I was munching on my hotdog eggs, I was internally laughing at the thought that I would've rather been eating airplane food, which is really saying something. The feeling of disappointment wouldn’t last long. I was immediately able to redeem satisfaction as we left the breakfast place and there was a guy selling fresh sliced watermelon, pineapple, and mango, which I snapped up. A whole freshly sliced, beautifully ripe mango, and only $1.00 USD! Something which makes Panama an easy place to travel is that the currency is in U.S. dollars.
Our first activity of the day, after the delicious frutas, was the Panama Canal Museum, in Casco Viejo. I would highly recommend this as your intro to Panama, but make sure you get the audio headset because most of the writing in the museum is in Spanish. The Panama Canal itself is an incredible engineering feat, but what might be more incredible is the geopolitical relations involved with the construction, use, and the ownership of the canal.
Some interesting things about Panama and the Canal that you can look up:
The contentious location of the canal - the initial route was to be through Nicaragua
The attempt by the French to build the Panama Canal and the subsequent buyout by the U.S.A.
The former American ownership of the Panama Canal and the handover of the Canal from the U.S.A. to Panama
The numerous infrastructure projects being funded by the Chinese, which are underway in Panama right now
Surprisingly, I didn't have to drag Rose through this museum...You know a museum is good if Rose willingly gets through the entire thing ;). That being said, at the end of the museum we were over being studious and were ready to switch gears, so we rented bikes. Riding bikes, especially in cities in Central America is not common. For the most part the sidewalks are a hobbled mess of concrete and holes. Panama city, along the promenade is about the only spot you can comfortably ride bikes. The road around the outside of Casco Viejo, although contentious because of how it blocks the ocean view, is nice to ride. We rode through Pista de Patinaje, to Naos Island, and back to Cinta Costera. The ride took around four hours, but included a bunch of stops along the way and about an hour and a half spent at the Bio Museum. The Bio Museum was interesting in the sense that it explored the geological formation of Panama and the biological diversity of region prior to the land bridge that connects the Americas. Do you know about the Giant Land Sloth? Look it up, it was HUGE! The museum was interesting, but was expensive and lacked in depth explanation. For us, it was worth it as we were seeking shelter from the hot afternoon sun, and the airconditioning felt incredible - we have become accustomed to showing up everywhere as hot sweaty messes. The locals don't go outside during the afternoon - they must think we are lunatics riding bikes around in the middle of the day, but we are trying to make the most of our time. The Bio Museum is one of those things if it fits in your schedule than great, if not, don't worry you didn't miss much. That being said, if you are interested in biology, more specifically convergent evolution, you should take a moment to lookup the impact of the conjoinment of the Americas. As a side note: do you know about the North American Rhinoceros? It was a thing!
In the evening we went to the only soda in Casco Viejo, and I had a delicious 1/2 chicken with deep fried plantain. If you have a weakness for deep fried chicken, you are in luck, it is literally everywhere Central America. I was worried I might lose weight on this trip, but I am doing a great job of keeping my calorie count up.
Something which you have to eat when in Panama is the ceviche. It is advertised everywhere, but the best place we found was Cevichera La Bendición, across the street from the fish market. There are a bazillion cevicherias at the fish market, but skip them. They are annoying as they holler at you and pester you to eat when you walk by, and the locals don't eat there, so you know there is better Ceviche elsewhere. Something helpful to know is that Cocteles is a type of Ceviche that is made with mayonnaise instead of lemon/sour orange - think coleslaw, but instead of cabbage it is seafood.
Our time in Panama City, as touristy as it was, was really enjoyable. We spent most of our time in the tourist hot spots, but they are hotspots for a reason. All in all we had two and a half days in Panama city and that was the perfect amount of time. It would be a great place to spend an extended layover when you are travelling between places. There was just enough to keep us captivated for a couple days. If you really like to slow down and hangout at upscale restaurants and bars, or really want to experience what Panama City is like outside of the main tourist spots, you might enjoy more time here.
We are excited for our four day boat trip through the San Blas Islands, and to get into Colombia, and... SOUTH AMERICA!!
A quick side note about the Panama Canal: It was interesting to see, but really nothing very special. The museum at the canal isn't nearly as good as the one in Casco Viejo, Panama City. If you are planning on going, look up the boat transit schedule on the canal website, so that you can actually see a boat go through the canal (we looked up the schedule and planned to see a boat transit, but sadly either the schedule was wrong or we showed up slightly too late). The canal museum gets stupid busy, too. We weren't at it in high season and it was packed by 9:00am; I can't imagine what this place would be like in high season... All in all, if you're in Panama city for the first time, you probably feel obligated to go, and I don't blame you, but temper your expectations.