Panama its not just a canal

John Newton

Panama 2014

Two weeks in Panama City

Boy its hot around here.

Arriving at Panama City Airport, its hot, even though, its 10.30 pm in the evening, the trip had been fairly long, but not very eventful, we were tired and cramped ,both being over 6ft tall, air travel, is always rather uncomfortable to say the least.

So we were pleased to arrive, after clearing passport control and more xray scans of our baggage and customs, we escaped into the arrival lounge.

Our trip so far had taken nine and a half hours to Miami, with two queueing hours in passport control then two and a half hours to Panama City airport in a totally full airplane.

We found it humid and hot in the arrival area and our, taxi for forty dollars awaited us, the melee that greeted us , heralded the real panama, dozens of drivers, shouting Taxi , hoping to get our business.

We boarded our taxi van, the driver, seemingly has no english, if he did , he was totally silent , the entire 25 minutes of the trip from the airport to the hotel. When we arrived, he piped up “aqui” we thought might be spanish for we are here. Please bear in mind that two beers please is about as far as I ever got in spanish, being british, there is an innate overbearing feeling that , if you shout loud enough in English, everyone will understand, however, that does not account for understanding what they are saying.

My wife is Italian and speaks a little spanish, so thats helpful as we can all see the hotel, which seems to be our destination, and amazingly looks the same in spanish as it does in english. As she says, he says we are here, “oh good” I say.

We have indeed arrived, and its hot around here, even though its late at night, we pay the driver forty four dollars,  including ten percent tip ,as we find out later this advice for tipping is for the USA and not Central America, where you pay what you have agreed.

Turns out everyone calls us gringos, when they want money, I try to point out that we are not American and we are English, this seems to confuse them and the price tends to reduce somewhat, which personally I am Glad about as, its been flaming expensive getting here in the first place.

We collect our room key and pay for our stay,they seem to be expecting cash, I disappoint them with a credit card, this seems to delay getting to the room by a full fifteen minutes. However we are both glad to get into the room and turn on the air-con, which is fantastically cold, for which we are both grateful.

The room ,lets face it had seen better days, the wardrobe doors were broken and stuck the hanging rail was only just hanging by a single screw, there was a pointless door in the bathroom counter that would not close and the shower head, was only just fitted very loosely,so the water spurted out in a very haphazard way. the bed seemed very large and soft, not too soft but just about ok. So down the the bar for a drink, one Mexican beer at $3  a pop and we were both about ready to sleep on the spot. back in the room we collapsed into bed, knowing we should wash , but being too tired to actually do it.

A very hot night followed, maybe the air-con wasn’t as good as I thought, in the morning, we were awoken by the growing sound of the Panamanian traffic , roaring engines of busses and the non stop honking of horns from every form of transport on earth it seemed. Even here on the sixth floor it was loud, an inspection showed the windows had been open a little, which may explain the heat and the noise.

A morning shower, it was warm water, which was a blessing ,because I had read that in Panama, we don’t wash with hot water, I remember thinking it must be very smelly there. It is, but mainly from the rubbish left in the streets as seen from the front of the hotel, when we arrived. we were both cleaner and fresher, as we wandered down to breakfast, we were pensive about what might be on offer.

The breakfast room was quite dark where the buffet was laid out, but laid out  it was in heated trays; greasy sausage. very old hard scrambled egg, and a stew of some kind and many other things I cant be bothered to remember.

An English speaker, speaks to us, he tell us that he is from Canada via Ghana and he is in the process of buying a property nearby. It seems unlikely as, its mardi gras this week and as far as I know everyone is on holiday this week, but neither of us let on that we know this. He seems friendly enough, although after breakfast I spot a couple of Italians that look like they escaped from the casting of some recent gangster movie, who say nothing while they are smoking outside.

I pop back up to the room and get my bag and we take a walk down the street, its 30 mins later and we are walking along the sea front, there is no hiding from the sun, which gets increasingly intense and we walk along, there is no shade , an hour later we are about to collapse it seems, we start to walk back towards the hotel, well as best we can in that direction in any case. I stop and look at a clock that only seems to tell the temperature as the hands are missing that tell the time, its thirty five degrees  Centigrade, 95 F in old money, it feels a lot hotter, the wind blowing off the sea, is like its coming from a giant hair dryer  about the size of the city of Panama.

All along the way back towards the hotel, we come across holes in the pavement ,where there used to be manhole covers, they haven’t go a solution to stealing for scrap metal here yet it seems, we pass many open drains, many piles of rubbish, many abandoned cars, and being passed by dozens of taxis honking horns at us, we are both feeling very hot and tired, but don’t trust the taxi drivers here yet .

As we learn later, you have to negotiate you fare with drivers,we find that a great number of taxis are death traps and you take your life in your hand every time you get in one.

We stop in a hotel with a restaurant and buy two cups of coffee and have a giant jug of iced water between us in about ten minutes, we continue our walk back to the hotel, and eventually find it, we have been out in the sun for five and a half hours, and are both very tired and still very hot, We get to the hotel room and dive into the shower in turn and dry off rather quicker than than expected under the air conditioner. we both decide to take a siesta, we sleep like the dead for a couple of hours.

When we awake we seek out some food , I find a supermarket we walk down get some ham and cheese, find the local park and enjoy lots of bottled water  and soda with our salty cheese and ham.   We both enjoy sitting in the park and we find its dark after a while and decide its beer time.

Every day its hot 90F, 32C is a normal day, with little or no cloud and a hot wind at this time of year. the carnival is on its way, we walk down to where is supposed to be happening and find the whole area fenced off, with dozens of police all over the area, there is a massive queue, to the section of town where its all happening, we walk past the start of the queue and along the sea front and come to a police barricade, stopping us from walking along the front, we recon, its about a mile long queue to get in to the carnival with armed police all over, it doesn’t look like a welcome sight, so we avoid it.

We decide to have beer, its quite common to have beer on ice in a frozen glasses, we enjoy one or two like that and eating at the local chicken shop, we make our way to bed.

Taxi for brits.. hold out your hand for a taxi, tell them where you want to go and then wait for them to tell you what ever price they say, most will negotiate they ask for $10 you may get the ride for $5. If you go to the Amador causeway from the centre of town, they will charge us gringos $3 or $4 coming back they try and charge $15 but mostly we could get them down to $6 or $7. My favourite phrase became we are not american, we don’t pay silly prices, some drivers , just drive away, some stay and try to get a fare agreement with you.

Make sure they know where they are going, and have the address written down, unless you have totally fluent Spanish, even then they will try to charge you more, once the price is agreed, it wont change.

The Amador Causeway is a spit of land constructed by some of the rock dug out when building the Panama Canal, its become a bit of a mixture between rip off and duty free, Right at the far tip of the causeway there is a duty free shop, you have to show your passport  and you can pay $20 for a box of cigarettes, but most other things were the normal price, Chanel perfume was the same price as here in the uk and so were the bars of Cadbury chocolate.   Along the causeway were a number of bars and restaurants one of which would not give us a table, despite being empty, and menus of burgers at $20 with extra for fries and salad, making a burger meal $25-$30. Chances are if you see Chicken and rice, its a cheap meal of slightly warm food that was made about an hour ago, this can be priced $2 to $10 but is the same quality throughout the city.

There are plenty of places to sit and view the sea and if you go around to the mini market, there are plenty of people talking  , in european languages and american accents from all over the states.

You can Listen to tales of pirates and exploding engines, silly stories of looking for a place to stay because you blew up a friends diesel, replaced it with an engine you happen to have which blew up as well and sunk their boat. How this makes you homeless, I’m unsure, but thats the story I heard.

I have learnt that its $100 to land in panama per person, unless you came by cruise ship and mooring by the causeway is about $100 a day for a 10 meter boat. So if you hear Italians talking in spanish about being boarded by the police, after they transited the canal, assume they were smoking something stronger than tobacco at the time and this is why they had to buy a meal for $3 in the mini market. You may be wondering how I could know this understanding little in Italian or spanish, but my wife loves gossip in any language.

There is a tale in the either of the taxi fares being $1 or $1.50, anywhere in Panama town, if it is true, we were were ripped off every day and being English rather than american seems to help lower the price a little if you can get it across I am still not sure about the real prices.

Places to avoid at night are too many to list, if unsure, ask at your hotel for good places to eat in the evening, be prepared for a compulsory tip of 15%  added to your bill and beer $2-$4 a meal in the Don Blas restaurant was just about ok, and cost for the two of us $55 including two beers and a jug of ice water.

I had a Cuban sandwich with fries and my wife had rice with chicken and a salad.

Places you could go include the town of Colon this is a port town on the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal, this is a badly run down town , with crumbling blocks of apartments and charming locals who signal you not to go down a road with the international sign for your throat will be cut, this was very sweet of them to warn us, not that we were thinking of going there in the first place. Its does have a free trade area which is closed Saturday and Sunday, actually its open but 90% of the shops were closed when we went there. This is like a European shopping estate with lots of shops you will recognise, I understand that you buy and pay for what you want and they deliver to the airport so you can take it home when you go. As everything was closed, I cant really tell you anything for certain.

The trip to and from Colon was interesting, it cost $3.50 each from the big bus terminal  in Albrook, all busses start and finish here in Panama City, The road to and from Colon was lined with shanty towns with one based around a giant rubbish ( garbage) tip you can see Panama in the raw on this trip and you can buy a Metro card here too, you will need a picture ID, I have no idea why this is as we were never asked again for it ( the id that is), This is a very busy area on Saturdays, when you see and hear it, you will wonder how anything gets done, there is a vast amount of energy in Panama, the bus stations seem to collect it and funnel it into a large space, amplify it vastly and funnel it back into the roads of Panama and beyond. starting at a slow pace and speeding up very quickly, you can get a bus here to almost anywhere in Central America.

Costa Rica, Guatemala,El Salvador, but not Columbia  and Panama City too, your metro card, will, by now cover you for the Metro rail , the Metro bus, and terminal busses ( Red Devils) once you have your card , if you catch a red devil on the road, you will have to pay 25c each to board ( its still too expensive) If your not sure now what a red devil bus is, once you see one you will, they are ancient old American school busses that look and sound like demons.

Here is a short clip of one

I suppose safe is a relative term, crossing the road in Panama City is a joint effort, if you see a group of school children crossing its worth joining them as one gringo does not matter ,but six or seven local schoolgirls are very valuable.

Busses do not slow for you, roads can be four lanes wide and in Via Espania, I didn’t see one pedestrian crossing and we looked very hard. Taxis tend to slow a little, but you cant depend on it to save your life, take a child with you is the best advice, we certainly had a few close calls but are still here to tell the tale.

Panama Canal  has a chequered history, completed by the USA, they had to buy the land and dig the canal, its ten miles long and then a few years later were forced to hand it over lock stock and barrel by Castro and his students.

Is it worth the $15 per person charged to enter the tourist section, well of course if you bear in mind that they earn about four million a day from this long ditch, its still probably worth it ,although the pamphlet of it inside for $10 is a total rip off.   I will mention here the host who raps and chats through a very broken english and hopefully less broken spanish about the ships going down or up 23 feet at a time though the locks, cha, cha, cha !

Time went very fast as the heat only diminished at night and for a few days, while a storm raged in the Pacific Ocean. The old town is worth a visit again its very expensive with $10 for two coffee flavoured granitas, of course its relative as two long american style coffees would be about £9 in England.

We got on the wrong bus one night and ended in La conception  area of Panama, the driver let us off in the main street area rather than down a back street, which was caring of him , we waited for fifteen minutes for another bus going back, and were given several looks from locals which amounted to , these are mad gringos !

We arrived safely back at the hotel, as you can see because Im typing this.

John Newton.