We always try to get to our “new” location during daylight hours. We prefer to arrive when we aren’t exhausted and for us we’re more comfortable getting our bearings before sunset. But this isn’t always possible and while we weren’t thrilled with arriving in Panama City at 9:36 pm with the obstacles of customs and immigration ahead of us, we had arranged with the woman who ran our Airbnb, Sarah, to have a driver, Matt, meet us. Coming through customs was surprisingly easy, and as walked through the gate to the main terminal we saw lots of people lined up with signs in their hand, but no where did we see Matt. We went back again, still no Matt. Thankful for my cell phone I tried Matt’s number, no answer; I tried Sarah, no answer. I tried Matt again. This time he answered. Oh, he told us, he was tied up in traffic (At 9:30 on a Wed night this seemed unlikely, but who knows?) and he had sent Hilary instead. (Frustrated, I wondered why he hadn’t bothered to send me a text indicating the change! But again it was late and I was tired!) We went back and sure enough we found Hilary with a piece of paper with “Jane” written in light pencil. Hilary, a young lady who appeared to be in her early 20s, spoke little English, but was very friendly and walked us to her car and then headed into the city, about 45 minutes away to find our apartment. One problem was she really didn’t know where the apartment was. She asked us a few questions, the answers to which we had no clue and she chatted with someone on her phone. Finally we arrived at a skyscraper in downtown Panama, talked with a doorman, and then Hilary asked if I had keys to the apartment…which I didn’t, but I thought Sarah had said they would be left at the door. And alas! They were. Hilary and the doorman escorted us up the elevator to the seventeenth floor and we were FINALLY (a few minutes after midnight) exactly where we were supposed to be. It was about this time that it occurred to me how much trust we have in process as we travel. I had met someone online, who had been reviewed and verified by Airbnb, and I had talked on the phone with someone they had connected me with and then we had just crawled in the car with a complete stranger trusting that she would get us where we needed to be! And the amazing thing? It worked just the way it should!
The view from our apartment was spectacular: during the day, at sunset, in the evening. It was even a fascinating place to watch heavy rain showers and we were lucky there were few of those and they usually found us inside.
We found we couldn’t tire of it. Several nights we even enjoyed fireworks displays across the harbor! We had never stayed in a high rise before and a couple of times when we had power outages we did wonder about elevator access but that never turned out to be an issue as the outages never lasted more than a few hours. Looking at the building from a distance we found that we could easily locate our specific apartment because it was the one that had bouganvilla blooming from the balcony.
This Airbnb was the first one I missed the mark on. On paper it looked perfect. The apartment was comfortable, the view great, but the location truly didn’t work for us. We were located on a small triangle of land near Avenida Balboa–one article I read estimated more than 75,000 vehicles travel it in a day, and I think they were all next to our apartment. Our spit of land was bordered on both sides by lanes and lanes of traffic and as is typical with many larger Central American and Asian cities with little urban planning there were no pedestrian crossings. And the resulting noise was not to be believed. While we enjoy city life, here it wasn’t the cacophony of people and the neighborhood; the noise came from cars, trucks and most often, and annoying, motorcycles! We watched with wonder as locals strolled right out among the cars, busses and trucks, often indicating by a slight tilt of the hand that the cars should stop so they could cross. On the corner by the busiest of crossings stood a huge sign that warned walkers to cross with care!
Uber once again come to our rescue. In Panama you can order an Uber or an Uber English. And while they are extremely reasonable (I don’t think we ever paid more than $7 for any ride) we found it unnecessary to use an Uber English. I know a little bit of Spanish and when I would initiate conversation with the driver (who was most often Panamanian or Venezuelan) they were pleased to communicate! Unfortunately, while I can usually figure out how to ask a question in Spanish, I’m often perplexed by the response I get. But with a lot of questioning looks, smiles and laughter we usually got it figured out. The biggest problem with Uber is that the drivers rely on electronic maps while the city taxi drivers know the city! So many times my phone would say 5 minutes to pick up and then change to 10 or 15 or sometimes they would even cancel! Our building had a Papa John’s around the corner and that became our location point since everyone seemed to know where “Papa John’s in Paitilla” was!
But even with the great Uber service we often felt like we were hostages in our apartment since we couldn’t just go out and walk. (I did point out in my review of the Airbnb that this feeling could very much be just Bob’s and my perspectives. I’m sure many young people or those who grew up in similar environments wouldn’t have any issue!)
One of our first places to visit was Casco Viejo which was established in the late 1600’s by the Spanish colonialists. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. This is an area of Panama that is in the process of being restored. We often forgot that Panama is a national capital and like most capital cities there are lots of monuments. New buildings are mixed in among the ruins.
Lovely plazas are dedicated to historic leaders: Balboa, Bolivar, leaders of Central American countries. We visited the church with the gold altar which legend has it was painted black by its priests in the seventeenth century to protect it from pirates. But everywhere we travel among my favorite monuments are those dedicated to the Ministry of Education which usually feature a child and a book. (At the time of this writing I am hopeful we’ll never have a statue in the US of Betsy Devos, but I digress…)
Panama City is on the Pacific side of the country and we loved how we could watch from our bedroom as ships in the distance lined up to enter the canal. Its construction was first attempted by a Frenchman, de Lesseps, who had previously designed the Suez Canal. As we walked through Casco Viejo following a pretty promenade along the water we saw a lot of French influence and the breeze off the water was a welcome accompaniment. There’s a lot of French history here including a French Embassy. While there is the old city and also the ancient city it’s really the canal that is the reason for Panama City’s existence. We met a family visiting from Germany and asked that they take our picture at what we thought was a particularly pretty point along the walkway! How surprised we were when our son, Patrick, shared with us a picture taken of him and a friend in the same exact location seven years ago. (The causeway in the background of our photo hadn’t been constructed when his picture was taken!)
One morning we took an Uber to the Miraflores Locks, the first locks boats encounter as they enter from the Pacific heading to the Caribbean. We had seen online that it was important to view the locks in the morning to see the boats heading east (or really north) toward the Caribbean because by 11 am the stream of ships would shift from east to west and there would be few coming through for several hours. We found this explanation confusing as the canal is open 24/7 but didn’t question and we arrived just in time to see the boat in the locks that a couple hours earlier we had viewed from our bedroom window lined up waiting to enter.
Patrick, sent us a link to https://www.vesselfinder.com that made the viewing even more fascinating. This site is live and gives specific locations of ships as they enter the canal describing their tonnage and cargo and also their ports of origin as well as their destinations.
For my birthday Bob and I visited the Biomuseo (designed by Frank Gehry) and located on the Amador Causeway. This road was built with the debris excavated from the canal’s construction and is today a very beautiful location with restaurants, marinas, hotels and a popular location for Sunday strolls. Until control of the Canal was turned over to Panama this causeway was off limits to the local people. It’s easy to understand the frustration the Panamanians felt during the second half of the twentieth century given how much control Americans had over their lives (and economy)! The construction of the museum is still in progress but it’s very interesting with lots of hands on exhibits.
Afterwards we visited Mi Ranchito http://www.restaurantemiranchito.com/en/home.html which became one of our favorite restaurants. It is also located on the causeway, is partially inside and partially outside with thatched roofs covering tables.
We particularly enjoyed the view of the skyline, the soft breeze off the water AND the great food!. I had the shrimp creole which was yummy. The restaurant is also a favorite with locals; its menu is diverse with lots of Panamanian choices and prices are reasonable. We returned several times during the month.
We made a trip via ferry to the Isle of Taboga, often referred to as the Island of Flowers. It’s another favorite with locals as there are few nice beaches in Panama. Even with the crazy traffic, we found life to be pretty laid back in Panama. And the ferry schedule to Taboga was no exception. The ferry landing was a modest affair, a tent behind a parking lot near the water. When checking in we were told there was an issue on the ferry and that when it was resolved they’d call us to board. People didn’t complain; perhaps they were used to it, and about 40 minutes later we were on our way. Our reservations were for the 9:30 trip but because we had way over estimated our travel time, we were boarding the 8:30 ferry departing at 9:15. Funny how things work out! It cost $20 for a round trip ticket and the majority of passengers seemed to be locals off for a day at the beach. (Although there is a sizeable expat community in Panama, we found that the majority of tourists tend to travel with organized tours.) Taboga is a lovely island. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
The island has a lot of history including one of the oldest churches in the western hemisphere dating to the 1500s. But the heat was so intense that after a short stroll up the hill to visit the church, and a stop for breakfast in a small hole in the wall (where we were waited on by an expat about our age from Wisconsin), we headed to the beach to enjoy the view under a sun umbrella. On the way we passed a mobile Uber stand. Ever the ubiquitous Uber! How strange, we thought! Taboga has no cars or trucks except for service vehicles. The stand was closed so we couldn’t ask! (Then again the fact they were closed might answer the question!) We found it interesting as we waited for our return ferry that residents returning to Taboga came loaded down with bags and boxes of groceries. Obviously they have to do their shopping on the mainland. Then as we got underway for our twenty minute ride back we realized the boat was turning in a circle and returning to the dock. What was happening? Ah, we learned a woman, perhaps a regular? had missed the ferry and we were returning to pick her up! Now just imagine that in the US or Europe!
At the top of our must do list was a trip through the canal! After researching the various options we finally decided on a partial tour. We would leave Panama City on a bus and head to Gamboa, about 40 minutes away, where we would board a boat in the locks at Gatun Lake. While both oceans are at sea level, the major problem with the construction is the height between the two. Gatun Lake is significantly higher so we would travel through three locks, each lowering us until finally, after approximately four hours, we would be at sea level again when we entered the Pacific Ocean. Our boat accommodated 300 people and because there were only about 100 in our party we had plenty of room to move about. Sailboats in front of us were tethered together. (And all ships that pass through the canal must have a canal guide.)
There were other small tour ships, huge cargo ships. As I watched the smooth water of the canal, I realized the stick I had been following wasn’t a stick at all but a crocodile. I had read that the flooding was often so bad during construction that the men had to sleep in the trees. I don’t know what obstacle would have been the greatest: the climate, the snakes and crocodiles, the disease or the work itself. It truly is an engineering feat! As we entered the Pacific we were able to get a glimpse of the new lock, the one just opened in 2016 to accommodate larger ships. (It was also interesting to see a US Coast Guard ship sitting at its entrance!) At the end of the tour passing under the Bridge of the Americas, I felt like I was inside David McCullough’s book, Pathway Between the Seas.
We later toured the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama. Here in addition to reading about the history of the construction of the canal, starting with the French, we watched videos and read newspaper accounts of the Americans turning over control to Panama. I think it’s interesting to note that there was some doubt that the Panamanians would be able to manage the canal effectively. In reality they’ve done an amazing job far exceeding expectations! (Ever the jingoistic Americans!) We also read with fascination the United States Senate voting rolls from March 1978 that showed the individual votes cast by each senator including among others Biden, Byah, McGovern.
There were unusual exhibits as well: posters from the campaign for national sovereignty and a caricature portrait of world leaders from World War II.
Finally before leaving we decided to take a vacation of sorts. (Yes, even in our travels we sometimes want a break from what we’re doing.) And so we made a reservation for two nights at the Country Inn and Suites right on the canal. It had a wonderful pool where we could swim and watch the ships on the canal at the same time. Talk about up close and personal! We virtually sat mesmorized watching ship after ship until it became so dark we couldn’t see any more!
At dinner, we met a couple of expats from Canada and when we first began chatting the wife told us that she thought what we were doing was great, that they had made the mistake of selling their place in Canada and buying in Panama. It’s difficult to know how to respond to such a confession! That’s a pretty costly mistake that may be difficult, if not impossible, to correct. She spoke with a certain melancholy tone of her annual trips back to Canada. The conversation did a lot to reinforce that I’ve not yet found a place where I’m willing to settle permanently.
When I was booking our Airbnb’s and plane tickets for Panama and Cuba I had thought we’d travel from one to the other, but as I looked at prices of plane tickets, it was much more expensive to fly to Havana from Panama than it was to fly back to DC and then on to Havana from there. Perhaps it was because it involved one way tickets; I’m not sure. I only know that on a Wednesday morning at the ungodly hour of 4:45 Jose, our charming taxi driver, met us at our door and took us to the airport! But at least our last jaunt out of downtown Panama left us with a picture of traffic that was a bit less chaotic!