In Julia’s previous post, she wrote about a number of destinations we visited in Panama. Throughout those travels, our friend Suzy was kind enough to let us use her apartment in Panama City as a home base.
Panama City was our first truly modern city in Central America. The city and the metro area are home to about 1.2 Million Panamanians or about 1/3 of the entire population of Panama. Suzy’s apartment is located in the El Congrejo (Crab) barrio of the city. El Congrejo is an area that primarily houses middle class Panamanians*. With a number of restaurants and bars nearby and a reputation for safety, El Congrejo is extremely conducive to walking. Whenever we needed something, we were almost certainly within walking distance. As a result, Julia and I got a nice feel for the surrounding area.
*Panama was totally different than Costa Rica and Nicaragua in this respect. Nicaragua was almost universally poor. There may have been a few wealthy families, but it appeared that almost everyone was poor. Costa Rica was almost all middle class. Then there is Panama. There is a huuuge lower class and a very, very wealthy upper class. The middle class is pretty much non-existent and is primarily made up of internationals.
We spent quite a bit of time in Panama City so it’s difficult to figure out where to begin. So, the best course of action is to be as Panamanian as possible about this. I’m not going to organize this nicely and do it logically, rather, I’m going to throw all the information at you and let you decipher it for yourself (the Panamanian way! Good luck!).
First you’ll need this travel guide to Panama City:
Want to go anywhere in Panama City? Are you sure? Alright, you have 3 options. First, you can take a city bus. Oh, you’ll need a card that you’ll have to purchase somewhere in order to get on though. Where? No clue. There are also the Diablo Roja buses. For you non-Spanish speakers out there, that translates to “Red Devil.” As the name suggests, it’s probably best to just avoid those. That basically just leaves you with cabs. Wonderful!
- Is the sun out? Yes – continue to step 2. No – call friends until one wants to pick you up (seriously, cabs are not safe here at night).
- Stand on the side of the street that goes the direction you need to travel in.
- Pick a cab that looks legitimate (i.e. says taxi on top, has a real taxi license on the side or something pretty close, is yellow).
- Flag it down as lethargically as possible (don’t look like you actually want the cab or it will just drive right by).
- Is the cab nice? Yes – back away. No – continue to step 4. You want the dingiest, unwashed cab you can find, preferably with a few dents.
- Is there someone in the front seat? Yes – back away. No – continue to step 5.
- Before getting in haggle over the price (just use the meter. What meter?). The driver will want something like 15 dollars. Offer him 3. Settle on $3.50 because there are two of you and you’re going somewhere 30 minutes away.
- While in the cab, speak in Spanish or not at all.
- When you get to your destination, pay with exact change and say “gracias!”
- Congratulations, you just took a cab in Panama and you are still alive!
Great, so you got to your destination. Now you need something to eat. Hey, that restaurant looks good, and more importantly cheap! Grab a seat at a table. Don’t worry, in the next 20 minutes you should have a menu. Sorry, I guess not. “Joven!” (means young person). Hopefully, that got her attention and now you can order something. Quickly please, it’s clear she doesn’t like you. Oh she just walked away. You know what you want now, right? Good. “Joven!!” Quick, order! Wow, looks like you ordered a drink too. Bold. If it’s a beer you should get that sometime in the next 30 minutes, if not, well good luck with that. Oh and your food, yeah I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. Oh, don’t forget to tip your waitress. Just kidding! They’ll just add it on automatically (how they see fit) or not bring you back your change.
Welcome to Panama!
Now that you have the general hang of things, I can write about some of the things we did while in town.
The Panama Canal
Naturally, the first thing we did in Panama City was go to the Canal. The Panama Canal is one of those things you learn about in school, but never think you’ll see in real life. As a result, I was totally unprepared for our Canal experience.
When you first get to the Canal, you walk up a hill to a large building. The building houses a museum, a few restaurants, a movie theater, and an observation deck. Upon arrival, there were no boats going through the locks so we took a few minutes to wander through the museum (small, but very interesting) and bone up on our Canal Facts.
- The Canal was finished August 15, 1914.
- During construction, illness from Malaria, Yellow Fever, and Bubonic Plague were serious issues. They were all almost eradicated from the canal zone by Colonel William C. Gorgas.
- Boats pay large fees (up to $375,000) before crossing through the Canal.
- Specially built locomotives that run along the sides of the locks guide the boats through the Canal.
- The Canal is made up of 3 locks and they are building a new one.
- The new lock will allow ships up to three times the current maximum size to pass through.
There are more facts here, but those were my favorites.
After the museum, there was a short movie about the Canal (in 3D!). We still had some time before any boats were scheduled to go through so we sat down to watch Disney/Pixar’s latest short film about the Canal. An animated Panameño told us all about the Canal and what it means to Panamanians. For some reason, he seemed to gloss over the bit about malaria and how dangerous the actual construction was (around 27,500 people died). Ultimately, we learned that Panamanians are very proud of their canal.
Next we had a quick lunch, Julia’s meal was particularly appetizing:
Finally, the big boat came through:
If you need to, take another look at those photos, it’s ok, I’ll wait…
Watching a boat go through the Canal is like watching the man-made version of the miracle of life (there is a lot less goop and screaming, but I’m pretty sure it’s basically the same). Here are my observations from the event:
- That boat over there is massive.
- It’s getting bigger.
- It’s still getting bigger.
- It’s not going to fit through the Canal.
- Seriously, guys, that boat has no room on either side.
- Wait, the new locks will have boats THREE times that size?!
I was completely blown away. It was a super cool experience and I recommend seeing it if you ever get the chance.
Activities while in Panama City:
Early in our time in Panama City, we did some of the touristy things. We went to Casco Viejo, which literally means “old helmet” and saw the historic part of Panama City. Unfortunately, it was mostly under construction while we were there (like the rest of the city), but if you looked hard enough, you could see that old Panama was beautiful. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see it again after the work is completed.
After Casco Viejo, we took a short walk down the waterfront to the fish market. This fish market is stellar. You can purchase fresh ceviche (think caught this morning) in sizes ranging from a small cup up to a full gallon. Don’t expect to pay a lot either, a quart of corvina ceviche will run you about $7. When you find yourself in Panama City, please, don’t skip the fish market.
As I mentioned earlier, we were in Panama City for a while. This allowed us to experience a few things that are usually reserved for locals rather than backpackers. We did do a few things that you can do anywhere like play ultimate frisbee (tougher than it looks), swim in apartment complex pools, catch Life of Pi (in 3D!), and even went to watch the Super Bowl in a sports bar (too bad they cancelled it because of rain). Those were all fun, save the football game that definitely did not happen, but the real fun happened when we were mixing it up with the locals.
On most weekends we were outside of Panama City traveling around the country, but on the Friday before we went to El Valle, we had a chance to go out and experience the Panama City nightlife for ourselves. We met up with Rolo and a few other Panamanians early in the night at a German bar (yeah, we know). Rolo suggested that we meet up with his friends at the Hard Rock Hotel downtown. The Hard Rock is a brand new hotel in downtown Panama. What makes it unique is its rooftop bar. It’s at the very top of the hotel, 65 floors above the city. We snapped some photos from the top and spent the rest of our night dancing to Panama’s sweet top 40 jams (See Ai Si Eu Tu Pego).
We also were lucky to be in Panama City during some fortuitous events. Our friends Mike and Adriana both decided to quit their jobs (where they were both grossly undervalued) and have a party to celebrate their new-found freedom. “Cool,” you may say “a party, that sounds standard enough.” Wrong. This is Panama, amigos (that means “friends”). The only thing that would suffice, in an event such as this, would be a Chiva! A Chiva is basically a party on a bus. Everyone boards a bus that’s specially outfitted with a dance area, bigger speakers than you get at Metallica concerts, some couches and chairs, and, most importantly, a bar pouring Panama’s finest rum drinks (other drinks too, but trust me, you want the rum). The bus then drives everyone around the city at a constant 2 miles an hour. This way, everyone can dance and see the city without spilling their drinks at left turns. Finally, the bus dropped everyone off at a club to get the rest of the dancing out of their systems. Everyone had a blast and Mike and Adriana were stupendous hosts (Congrats to both of you and a huge thank you for including us in your post-job revelry).
Julia and I really enjoyed Panama City. I’m not sure we would have felt the same had it not been for all of our wonderful friends who helped guide us along our way.
Up Next: If it feels like we crammed a lot of Panama into two posts, you’re right. Don’t worry, we have one last Panama post coming up and it only covers one place (Contadora Island).