Arriving in Panama City was an event that we will not forget. We cruised over the Panama Canal on the Bridge of the Americas on our way to the city, arriving around 4pm to awful traffic. We sat there in traffic wondering if we'd ever get into town. The traffic in and out of the city at this time of day can be bad both ways. Cars are diverted on the other side of the road at certain times of the day. We were heading into the city, and the main bulk of the traffic was heading out into the suburbs. The four lane highway had two lanes in each direction. Our left lane was actually opened to outward bound traffic leaving us with only one and three the opposite way.
Bridge Of The Americas
Driving Downtown Panama City
Driving in Panama City is not for the faint of heart! It is nerve-racking! There seems to be little regard for the white or yellow line down the middle and people are aggressive behind the wheel. Our first taste of driving in this city was rush hour and we got our fill! We finally arrived in downtown Panama City and took the Cinta Costera (coast route) around town with no real direction as to where we were going. The city is huge and beautiful. High rise buildings with blue and green glass and exteriors in every color of the rainbow, gives this city a very latin-cosmopolitan feel.
We drove around town until close to dark when we finally stopped at a McDonald's to use the wifi and find ourselves a hotel. We found a hotel in the part of town called El Cangrejo which is the main ex-pat neighborhood in Central Panama City. Principe Hotel and Suites was the hotel we booked and it was a nice room with ample parking in it's indoor parking garage. (a rarity in Panama City) It was really a nice hotel and in our budget and the parking garage was secured.
El Trapiche's - Fiesta Panameña
Eating Panamanian Style
That evening we walked around Panama City and El Cangrejo which is an area of town with a lot of restaurants and bars catering to foreigners. We passed up the Irish Pubs and Cuban joints to find some real Panamanian food and we found the place. We ate a place called El Trapiche, which is renowned for its large authentic plates at a decent price. Panama uses the US dollar and the price of this plate was 11.75. Not cheap however worth every penny for the feast you get and a great value!
There is something on the menu called the "Fiesta Panameña", which includes a traditional stew called a “sancocho”, “ropa vieja” which means “old clothes, (shredded flank steak in a tomato sauce base), black beans, yellow rice, plantains and fried yucca) Rice with chicken, a Tamal (pork or chicken cooked with corn-stuffed cornmeal, vegetables (onion, tomato, and bell pepper), olives, and raisins. Fried Yucca, A Carimanola (meat-pie in a torpedo-shaped yuca fritter, stuffed with cheese, seasoned ground meat or shredded chicken and fried) A Patacon (fried plantains) Almojabana (type of bread made with cuajada cheese and corn flour) and Chicharron (fried pig skin) all for 11.75!!!! It’s a feast and a little bit of everything with the Panamanian cuisine. A great way to try it all.
We loved the Panamanian food, as opposed to the Costa Rican food we had eaten for the last month. We both ate something different. Sitting in the sidewalk section of the restaurant, people watching and eating excellent food was a great experience. That evening we settled down in our hotel to begin our search the next day for work and a place to live.
Failure Finding Work and a Home
The next day, we hit the newspapers, online advertising sites like "Encuentra 24" and craigslist. We soon realized that it wasn't going to be easy to find work nor inexpensive to find housing in Panama City. There are a lot of scams with hotels and jobs on craigslist in Panama with people fishing for your information with false adds. Be careful if you are looking for work or apartments in Panama City to decipher the bogus ads from the real ones. Finding work in Panama City is not as easy as our friend Pepe had said while we were in Costa Rica. There were some freelance teaching jobs, however they paid very little. This would be ok if the rent prices in Panama City weren't on par with California or Florida.
We found some 1 bedroom apartments for around 1000 dollars per month. We could get a room in a shared apartment for around $650. Neither of these options were going to work for us. We simply couldn't afford to live in Panama City. If we had a bunch of time to sit and wait for the right apartment or the right job, things might have been different. However, our money was getting thinner and we made the decision to leave Panama, give up working in Central America and head back to the US and drive home.
Via Argentina Metro Station
Exploring Panama City
Since we no longer needed to save our money for an apartment, we decided to explore the city a little. The city has a great subway system which we took a few times, and there is a lot to do. However, it is a crowded city and driving here is nothing short of crazy. Since the drivers are so aggressive here, we thought it would be best not to drive our oversized SUV all over town to sightsee. One day, we sat outside our hotel for 10 minutes and saw countless cars going down the street with side impact damage. We counted 60 cars in that 10 minutes with passenger side damage. In fact, out of all the cars going down the street, 90 percent had some damage to them, mostly on the driver side.
Taking the subway around town is an option, however limits you where you can go as they are still expanding it. We took the subway the end of the line and went to a mall and walked around one day. Soon we realized the subway was more for commuters to come into town to work than for tourists to head out all over town to sightsee. We did end up driving to Casco Viejo one day because the subway goes near, but not right into Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo -Ruins of the Company of Jesus
Casco Viejo is the old part of Panama City. The part of the city that still holds ruins of the 16 and 1700s. In 1671, Henry Morgan the famous pirate, set fire to old Panama and the new city was built on a peninsula which is now Casco Viejo. We drove around Casco Viejo, stopping from time to time to take pictures and walk around a little. The area has an old feel, mixed with slums, mixed with a new polished feel. There is a little bit of everything crammed into a small area. Ruins, palaces, bars, restaurants, slum tenements, fort remnants, hawkers and drug dealers. It's strange to stand in Casco Viejo and see the dichotomy of the old city and the new city across the bay. How different the two places are, yet the same.
Casco Viejo has plenty for the tourist including your Panama Hat stores and trinket shops. It also has some amazing architecture. The old colonial style of Casco Viejo is really what I loved about the place. It also had some amazing murals and graffiti style paintings strewn about the area. We liked Casco Viejo, however it seemed a little contrived in its mix of touristy shops, overpriced restaurants, and in all honesty... wasn't for us.
African Pride Parade "el Diablo"
Colon African Pride Parade
We decided to head out of town for a day and go to Colon, which is the eastern port of the Panama Canal. Little did we know, the "African Pride Parade" was going on that day. It was a great little view into the culture of Panama and the Caribbean culture that mixes with U.S. presence, African presence and spanish influences that make up Panama.
In Afro-Panamanian folklore, "El Diablo" is said to represent the slave masters. There were a few at this parade and they marched around in masks inspired by animals, devils, demons, and witches. There was also a parade of dancers in traditional garb.
We really love when we stumble upon something like this without knowing it was going on, and we really loved it! We stayed and watched the parade and headed to up the coast to take a drive to Portobello. It was great get out of town and see some of the culture of Panama and explore the northern coast a little.
The Panama Canal -Miraflores Lock
The Panama Canal
What trip to Panama would be complete without a trip to the Panama Canal? The MiraFlores Lock is a major lock in the Panama Canal and one of two that has observation decks for visitors including a visitor center. There is a short 3d movie about the making of the lock and the museum in the visitor center which was interesting even if the 3D was less than impressive. We walked around the museum and learned just about everything there was to learn about the canal. The museum is really nice! A great place to spend the day.
The Panama Canal is a fifty mile long canal that raises ships up from the Pacific to the Caribbean and back built between 1904 and 1914 by authorization of Teddy Roosevelt. It was considered U.S. territory until Jimmy Carter gave local oversight control in 1977, and Panama finally got full control in 1999. The canal uses three sets of locks — Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side and Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side. The observation deck is a great place to sit and watch ships move in and out of the locks at Miraflores. There is also an expensive buffet style restaurant there too, however we didn't eat there.
Marveling At The Lock
We sat on the observation deck and watched unbelievably large ships make their way through the locks, marveling on the amount of containers stuffed on the deck of these boats. Each container is about the size of a semi-tractor trailer and some of the boats had thousands of them. It really put into perspective how many goods are transported around the world this way and virtually all of the goods shipped this way, go through the Panama Canal. It truly is a modern marvel of the world.
North Vietnamese Food
Taking In Some More Local Flavors
We couldn't afford to stay in the Principe Hotel and Suites any longer so we also spent a few days in a house turned into a hotel outside of town called Pacific Dreams. This place was around 25 dollars per night and the 5 bedroom one story house had decent, however small rooms and a common area with a very good free breakfast. There was an area a few blocks away that had street food vendors at night and Shelly and I would go down and eat something different every night.
We would frequent a Colombian street food place where the guy who ran it talked us into wanting to go to Colombia and shipping our car to South America, but being it was early June, we learned that the only ferry going to Columbia from Colon doesn't start back up until September. We stayed about a week in Panama City before heading back to the U.S. The last night in Panama City, we found a great North Vietnamese restaurant and had Pho and some spring rolls. It really made us miss Vietnam and North Vietnamese food. The family who ran the restaurant were warm and welcoming and the food was incredible! It's difficult to find an authentic North Vietnamese restaurant. Most restaurants in the US are South Vietnamese, there is a huge difference in the cuisine.
Change In Perspective
Panama City is a place we wouldn't mind going back to. We didn't have the time to see and explore the city like we wanted. There is an amazing amount of culture here in Panama. We missed out on some really great places including the San Blas Islands. Sometimes it's good to get a taste of an area, knowing you will return someday and visit the places you missed. We came to Panama from Costa Rica in a hurry, to find work and try to stay for a while.
However, sometimes life just doesn't work that way. You get somewhere and you find that it's more expensive than you heard. Maybe finding work and housing isn't feasible for your plans. Sure, we could have just packed it up in Costa Rica, saved the time, and headed back to the US, however making our way to Panama was a risk. Taking risks is what traveling is all about. Anyone can book a vacation with a tour agency where everything is planned to the minute.
Anyone can hop on a cruise ship and sail from port to port. There is nothing wrong with this, however traveling is different. It's going out without prior knowledge and exploring. It's heading to a foreign place without itineraries. This is what we feel true travel is about. Learning by doing. Trial and error. We bought a tent in Panama and realized we would need to start heading back to the USA to work as nurses. By camping along the way, we could maximize our money. Camping back to the US was the one of the best things we ended up doing! This is what travel is about. Turning your failures into unforgettable experiences.