Panama Series: In and Out of Panama City

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After two weeks off from blogging, due to a combination of long drives, sketchy WiFi, busy schedule and well needed rest and family-time, I’m finally home and ready to give you all the juicy updates and tips on what to see, where to go, what to do, what not to do – and whatever else I feel is necessary to share about the country famous for its canal, its hat (which is not even from Panama, but from Ecuador) and the Panama Papers scandal. There’s so much more to this country than that – so let’s take it all the way to the beginning of my journey. Welcome to the Miami of Central America; Welcome to Panama City!

There I was. Baggage claim, waiting for my neon-green suitcase alongside my boyfriend and his parents – and a bunch of sexy Latin women. The twelve hour flight had got me all sweaty, sticky and smelly – which was a nice little feature to the disgusting hobo-look I got going for me while flying long distance. I wanted to hide my pale face and my greasy hair inside of my dirty hoodie.

We wanted to take the local bus to Panama City in order to save some money, but language barriers guided us to, well, nowhere really… That was until we eventually found the bus stop for the local bus, but were told we needed to buy a buss pass in advance – at the central bus station. At least that’s what we thought we were told. Again, language barriers.

In Panama City there might be more taxis than inhabitants, so you can only imagine how many taxis approached us while we were waiting at the bus stop, scratching our heads. We eventually gave in and allowed a taxi to take us to our hotel, the gorgeous Sercotel Panama Princess ****.

The hotel rooms were spacious, clean and everything I needed after such a long flight. I took a well needed shower, got dressed and went downstairs to the lobby bar to celebrate the beginning of an adventurous vacation with my French family-in law. I raised my glass of Kiwi Sour, the men raised their bottles of Panamanian beer, and mother-in-law raised her glass of whatever it was she was drinking. Salud!

Day 1: Miraflores Locks , Panama Viejo & Casco Viejo (Old Town)

You can’t visit Panama City without visiting the famous Panama Canal. You just can’t. Whether you are interested in the technicality of the locks, the history, the clever construction, the cargo ships lining up to pass through – and even if you’re just curious about everything in general (like me), it’s something you shouldn’t miss out on. We made plans to visit the Miraflores locks the first day and the Gatun locks the next.

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Before you ask, one hour or one hour and a half gives you way enough time to spend at the Miraflores locks, unless you want to see the same thing over again and again. One hour was enough for us to see a cruise ship as well as different cargo ships, pass through the locks. Of course, there are tourists everywhere, so you might wanna go upstairs, downstairs or wait your turn for a good view. Food can be purchased on site. There are restaurants, a kiosk and a coffee shop in the Visitor Center.

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The taxi driver who took us to Miraflores, waited patiently  in the car while we visited the locks – and no, he didn’t charge us anything extra. We returned to the taxi and continued our quest to sight-see as much as possible. This time direction Panama Viejo – which is not Old Town Panama, but Old-Old Town Panama: The Archaeological Site of Panama Viejo and Historic District of Panama.

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We spent an hour and a half strolling along the pathway, photographing the ruins and learning the history behind them all, before once again returning to the taxi to move on to yet another exciting location: Casco Viejo!

Casco Viejo is Spanish for Old Town, and it was everything I hoped it would be – and more. Picturesque, colorful buildings, narrow streets, terrace cafes, a market selling souvenirs to curious tourists and bars offering tropical cocktails and snacks to festive visitors. The charming architecture and tranquil atmosphere made it feel miles away from the modern city center and all the gigantic skyscrapers. We enjoyed a couple of fruity drinks before returning to the hotel to enjoy the outdoor swimming pool for a little while, before getting dressed up and ready to explore Panamanian cuisine for the very first time.

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Ah, Panamanian cuisine! My meal that evening was delicious (in case you wondered). Tinajas turned out to be an excellent choice of restaurant. As a starter, I ordered empanadas – high quality ones. Perfect balance of sweet and savory, with its caramelized onion dipping sauce to give it an interesting touch. My main dish, the yuka pie, may have looked like a small dish – but don’t be fooled. It kept me full – extremely full – until the next day. The dish was rich in flavor as well as textures. I loved it. We raised our glasses once again. This time to celebrate an eventful and enjoyable first day. Salud!

Day 2: Colon, Gatun locks, Fort San Lorenzo & Panama Canal Railway

“Taxi? Taxi!”, another yellow car pulled over. Another driver offering to take the obvious tourists to wherever they needed to go. “The central bus station” was definitely not his first, second or even third guess, but once we explained that we were taking the bus to Colon to see the Gatun locks, it all seemed to make sense to him after all. And we were already aware of the fact that Colon, the city itself, is the most dangerous city in Panama. It’s not a place for Europeans with a bad sense of direction, to wander around with their valuables on display and no self defense skills, whatsoever.

The bus from Panama City to Colon was quite the tourist attraction, though. The folklore decorations inside of the bus looked like a mix between a gypsy’s den and my grandma’s living room, and the TV-screen was showing some random Spanish soap opera to keep the passengers entertained during the journey.

We had barely even touched Colon soil, before a beggar wearing a trash bag as underpants, approached us in Spanish. I felt bad for him, and wanted to give him a coin or two, but was too scared to take out my wallet in public in a city like that. We hadn’t even finished the phrase “yo no hablo Español” before a taxi interrupted us and asked us where we needed to go – because staying downtown in Colon was completely out of question.

The driver spoke absolutely no English nor French, but that didn’t stop him from being a real chatterbox. We understood bits and pieces of what he was talking about, but every now and then messages seemed to get lost in translation. We managed to get by with a mix of Spanglish and French, accompanied by gestures and photos from our guidebook, and in the end it all worked out well. The driver, whose name was Eric (I think), suggested we’d take the ferry through the locks (which is free) rather than entering the visitor center of Gatun locks, where we wouldn’t have been able to see much anyway. From the deck of the ferry we saw the ocean from both the Pacific and the Atlantic side. The fresh breeze, the gentle waves and the fantastic view – now, this was the highlight of the day, so far.

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Back on the road, direction Fort San Lorenzo, an ancient Spanish fortress. The fort’s ruins and the village site are located 13 km west of Colon. Fort San Lorenzo is government-protected and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A tiny monkey caught our attention while walking from the car towards the historical site. Rapidly, he disappeared and left us curious to find out if there were any other animals hiding up there, in the trees above us. There weren’t.

We did however see an iguana crossing the street and entering the public bathroom.

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The only thing left on the agenda for the day was to take the Panama Canal Railway from Colon back to Panama City. We still had nearly two hours to kill before boarding the train, and Eric didn’t want to leave us wandering the streets of Colon by ourselves. He offered to drive us to a restaurant in the city, which was fine by us, as we were all starting to feel hungry anyway.

Judging from the outside, the restaurant looked kind of creepy and didn’t really give us the desire to enter. The windows were tinted and the place looked anything but inviting. That was, until a gentleman opened the door and greeted us in English. All the other guests in the restaurant were tourists, just like us, and we knew we were safe.

Tender creole chicken, served with rice and fried plantains was exactly the lunch I needed. I love creole seasoning. And plantains. I forgot all about where I was and focused only on my meal. Time goes by so fast when you’re enjoying yourself – and a meal – and before we knew it, it was time to find Eric’s taxi and head to the Panama Canal Railway station.

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In case you wondered, Panama Canal Railway is not a regular train. This is an experience unlike any other and you’ll have the most picturesque view from the window – I promise! The railroad follows a scenic path across a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, passing through the gorgeous rain forests, cruising alongside the locks of the Panama Canal, through the historic Gaillard Cut and passing the slender causeways in Gatun Lake.

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Arriving in Panama City, taxis were already waiting outside of the station for potential costumers. As it was our last evening in Panama City, we decided to return to Casco Viejo for a couple of drinks. More specifically, to the rooftop bar at Tantalo Hotel.

The view from the rooftop bar was amazing, and so were the drinks. We laughed, we drank, we tweeted and instagrammed – just to let everyone back in Europe know that we were living the dream. Salud!

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5 random things I have learned from visiting Panama City:

  • It’s necessary to know some Spanish, even in the capital.
  • If you don’t like Panamanian cuisine, there’s Taco Bell, Hooters, McDonalds, KFC, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, you name it.. they’re all there.
  • Panama City has a very charming Old Town, and you can easily avoid the skyscrapers if you want to.
  • There might even be more taxis in Panama City than in New York.
  • It’s an expensive city.

Next post in the Panama-series will be on: Valle de Anton. Stay tuned!

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