Mar. 24-27, 2016 :
I’ve read a bit about Panama in travel guide books and searched online before my trip to Panama. When I arrived at Panama, Panama seemed a bit more modern and wealthier than my expectation (which I was not too sure how I had formed in my mind before I stepped on the land of Panama). Not just the currency (US dollars), Panama seems a bit too similar to US to be anything near exotic for a tourist from USA 🙂 Apart from the metro and metro bus, everything else in the 3 days has seemed to be more expensive than I have expected / hoped. The restaurants seemed to be at least as expensive as in US. Maybe, this is only true for tourists whereas the locals know how to find the best deals ?!
From what I’ve experienced in the 3 day, this country basically “works”. But underneath the surface, the quality or value that one gets from the high cost is not very satisfactory (except the metro/metro bus), at least as far as a tourist is concerned. Even though the original hardware may be good, the maintenance was not nearly as good; eg. the electric hand driers or the paper towel dispensers usually didn’t work during the 3+ hours that I have spent in the Tocumen Airport (PTY).
Walking to the main post office was my first task on the first morning of this trip. After I found that it’s closed (on a Good Friday, Mar. 25, 2006 !), I tried to go to test my luck at the second destination, Pamaná Viejo. I made use of the best bargain in town, the public transportation, metro bus and metro (subway). The metro card (usable for both bus and subway) cost $2. Each bus trip then cost only 25 cents or 35 cents for the subway ride. Though I was not happy to have to pay $2 to be able to use the metro card, just one trip was worth the $2 fee compared to the taxi (which may easily be $3 or $5 for each ride) ! After I purchased the metro card, I had difficulty in adding $1 to the card as I couldn’t insert the newly bought metro card into the required slot. ( One has to add value to the metro card. $2 is merely to buy the physical card and it has $0 value if one doesn’t add anything to it ! ) I asked a local lady to help and then realized that the card didn’t need to be inserted all the way and I could just leave it sort of half-inserted when I charged it. No matter how detailed information one might have found before, there might still be surprising detail that has not been written before by anybody else !
I found and waited in a bus stop in Av. Justo Arosemena for about 10 minutes or so before I found a bus arriving but not with the sign for Panamá Viejo. I then used my poor Spanish to ask a guy whether that was the stop to go to Panamá Viejo. That guy told me that I had to go to Av. Balboa to find the bus stop to go to Panamá Viejo. I kind of knew/expected the answer (as I had been wondering) before he replied and though I didn’t recognise most of his Spanish words, I kind of understood what he said. This has been the “norm” in all the 3 days.
I easily found the bus stop in Cinta Costera, just south of Av. Balboa. Most shops were closed in Good Friday (Mar. 25, 2016). Fortunately the charming Cinta Costera at the ocean front was readily approachable in any day of the year. I took a couple photos near the monument of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa before going to wait for the bus.
I took my first metro bus (like locals!) to the ruin area of Pamaná Viejo and “tripadvisor.com” indicated that it was opened that day. Online sources told us to stop at the Nautica Tower but the driver, after knowing where I wanted to go, let me get off at the far end of Pamaná Viejo, near the most prominent Bell Tower. Unfortunately, when I got off the bus and talked to a very young guard, I realized that Pamaná Viejo was closed that day (except for some travel agents if I understood him correctly) . Nevertheless, from outside the fence, I could see the Bell Tower and all the ruins inside the fence. All of Pamaná Viejo seemed to be just insde the fence along Via Cincuentenario and so I just walked along Via Cincuentenario for a km or a mile or so. I felt that I essentially saw all (?) of Pamaná Viejo free of charge 🙂 But there’s not really much to see and just ruins (as some people have honestly commented online). While planning, I hesitated whether I should come and now I really think Pamaná Viejo is not worth my visiting.
The walk was not bad at all if the temperature could have been considerably lower. After I arrived at the visiting center of Pamaná Viejo (near Nautica Tower, the originally intended starting point), I asked and found the bus stop to go to Multiplaza for lunch and for a curious visit in the mall there. This mall there and probably everywhere in Panama City (or the World ?) was pretty much the same as in US. The restaurants had very similar brand names as in US. I ordered “Mango fish” in “Ruby Tuesday” and it cost more than $15 (including 10% service charge). I was happy to read that Panamanians don’t expect tipping and I easily complied 🙂 In the later afternoon, I went back to the beautiful Cinta Costera area, east of where I had been that morning. I’ve always like getting close to the waters. Inside Panama City, Cinta Costera and later Amador Causeway were my best experiences. Sitting in a random place at the promenade of Cinta Costera and staring at the Pacific Ocean with its seemingly static surface, I could almost spend many hours there reading my novel, if it was not nearly as hot.
The Panama Canal partial transit tour on the next day was the highlight of the entire Panama trip. In fact, the dates of this Panama trip was basically determined by this partial transit trip. After listening to 3 languages (English, Spanish and German) of explanation, I understood that it’s simply letting the ships/boats go into the “lock system”, shutting the gates of the locks, pumping in 26 million gallons of water into the “locks” in ~ 8 minutes to raise the water level, then the ships just going through the canal on the elevated water level — something they have done for >100 years.
The northbound Panama partial transit trip (~half day) has cost me $150 as I bought it directly from one of the two ship companies (“Panama Marine Adventures” — the website of the other company “Canal and Bay Tours” didn’t work well for making reservations and didn’t provide detailed information when I tried to make reservation in Jan. 2016; in addition, they didn’t respond as quickly as their competitor). If one bought tickets from other travel agencies, they would charge you more and the only additional thing that they did was just to deliver you from your hotel to the marina and back.
Passing the locks was very very slow, slower than the US-Mexico border or the HK-Mainland China border. Most of the time, the ships just sat there and waited. I’ve read and concluded that it’s a bit too much for a full transit trip (they say 8 hours, but it can be considerably longer due to the traffic). I could feel the boring wait when we got stuck in our first lock. Our ship/boat was small compared to some cruise ship. In fact, there was another ship like ours side by side and even touching ours, while sailing through the locks. In addition, there was one considerably bigger cargo ship in front of us, making it 3 at that time inside the locks. The most interesting or even exhilarating part was when I saw that the gate was shut and the ship was gradually raised by the water to the level almost as high as the shut gate.
After passing through just the first set of locks, I already felt “mission accomplished”. The partial transit trip was probably the right choice 😁 Apparently, after the first set of locks (Miraflores Locks) — at the southern end, people or at least I have sort of lost interest very quickly. I didn’t even go out to see and take picture at the 2nd set of locks (Pedro Miguel Locks). The one going into the Caribbean Sea that I didn’t visit was called the Gatun Locks. All 3 set of locks are now being built with larger lock systems to allow for wider and larger ships to go through; otherwise the Panama Canal would lose a lot of business.
After passing the 2 sets of locks, we got off the ship at Gamboa and the bus was meant to take us back to Flamenco Marina where we started. But I asked them to drop me off at the Biomuseo.
Going to the Flamenco Marina that morning was the only time that I paid cash to take taxi. In this exercise, I’ve realized that the hotel taxi was so much more expensive than the normal yellow cab. One day earlier, before 6 am, I walked down the hotel to practise bargaining. The hotel taxi driver asked for $25 for the trip from my hotel to Flamenco Marina at the end of the Amador Causeway. I bargained it down to $20. Later that day, I emailed another driver and she also wanted $25. That morning, I just walked around the corner and waved down a yellow taxi. When I asked him “Cuánto …”, I was hoping $15 and then I might offer $10, it might end up in between. I didn’t understand his reply at first as it was totally out of my expectation range. After him repeating a bit (maybe even with some finger counting), I finally realized that he was saying “Ocho”, $8 😮 I hesitated for a second and decided to just get on his cab.
The driver drove very fast and it probably took not more than 15 minutes to get to Flamenco Marina from my hotel and I arrived ~50 minutes before the required check-in time. If not taking the taxi, I could take the metro (subway) to Albrook and then take a bus to the last stop on Amador Causeway. But the availability of metro and esp. the bus was not clear and I couldn’t really practise to test the viability of this indirect route that early in the morning. So, I decided that it’s not worth the risk.
The best about the Biomuseo was the funky and bizarre architecture designed by the famous American architect Frank Gehry. This was probably the third piece of architecture of F. Gehry that I’ve personally visited, after the Getty Center in LA and Guggenheim Museum in NYC. The entrance fee for a non-resident adult was $22, almost as expensive as the suggested donation/admission ($25) for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC but with much less to see. Inside, the best thing may be the 6 minute video in multiple huge screens on the side walls, ceiling as well as the floor, about the wonderful nature, plant and animal. I walked a bit too fast at the beginning as I didn’t know how small this museum was. I slowed down in the middle and prolonged the visit to nearly one hour but I could have stepped out easily after half an hour.
After visiting the Biomuseo, I “tested” the bus system again in Amador Causeway. After finding the bus stop, I was happy to see a local couple ( a man and a woman), who walked to the same bus stop almost at the same time as I did. I asked them whether that stop was for the metro bus to go to Albrook with my metro card. Since their answer was what I had hoped/expected, my limited Spanish was more than enough. Later, I saw another local person also asked the same question when she came to the bus stop. There was no real written sign or anything there (like most other places). Usually, the metro bus has got a written orange sign but there it was a blue vehicle sign with no word. That had made me want to ask. At the end, the bus arrived after 30 minutes’wait. But the mild breeze plus hiding under the canopy canvas and trees has made the wait in the middle of the Amador Causeway more or less pleasant. If it’s not so hot, I might have walked a bit more in this Causeway.
In contrast to the previous day walking along Via España or around Cinta Costera, the Albrook bus terminal and the Albrook Mall were full of people. In the “Boulevard Cafe” in a corner of the mall, I ventured to have a bowl of “Sancocho” (~chicken stew in Panama) which turned out to be the best food that I have had in Panama. This assertion also takes into account about the price which was like $5.90 (including tax) for the bigger bowl (probably $1 cheaper for a smaller bowl). Though I also went to try pork chop over rice dish in a very local restaurant along Av. Central the next day, this was about the only special Panamamian food that I’ve tried in Panama. The picture in the menu and the photo high on the front of the restaurant showed a lot more meat and stuff in the bowl but in reality, the bowl was mostly just the soup. But it tasted delicious and mild, not too spicy nor salty. Sancocho may be cooked differently in various Latin American countries but this Panamanian version of Sancocho seemed to be stewed with chicken and was just good and right for me !
On the last day, the major destination was Casco Viejo, which was also my last stop in this trip of Panama before I left for US that night. Unlike Pamaná Viejo, people very much actually live in this old town. After getting off from the metro station “5 de Mayo” and finding Av. Central, I strolled along the busy Av. Central bustled with all kinds of local shops and people.
At the center of Casco Viejo, it was the Plaza de la Catedral (also known as Plaza Mayor or Plaza de la Independencia). After asking a girl to help take a photo, I wondered how I spent my last few (~3) hours in Panama. There was the Museo del Canal Interoceánico that I planned to go; but I’ve also found that to hide from the heat, churches or catherdrals were good choices, especially the one called “San Francisco de Asis”, very clean and brand-new-looking, next to Palacio Bolivár with good air-conditioning, was probably about the best in the old town. In fact, the old town was full of churches and cathedrals. I guess that’s what people liked to go to in the old days 🙂
The entrance fee to Museo del Canal Interoceánico was $10 (for a non-resident adult). If I wanted an English guide, it’d cost $3 more. I knew that the exhibition was mostly Spanish in this museum but I was never interested in all the glorious details anyway and I’d rather walk around myself than having somebody accompanying me. [ Haha … I guess I am truly a solo traveler and just the idea of companion scares me. 😀 ] On the 2nd floor, though the exhibition was mostly in Spanish, there were some English summaries here and there. They were actually good for me as I didn’t enjoy reading every detail everywhere and the summary just had the right length for me. However, on the 3rd floor, it’s really all Spanish (except a couple English newspaper cuttings). And yet, it’s OK as people have always said “a picture is worth a thousand words”. With the pictures and my limited Spanish vocabularies, I at least knew what it’s going on. At the end, I did feel that I learnt a lot about the Panama Canal as well as the history of Panama. They like to say that Panama is not just the bridge between the North and South America, but also the crossroads of the World.
*********** *********** ***********
I guess, at the end, there were something above my expectation and also something below my expectation 😛 I don’t think I’ll go back to visit again (as for most other places in the world). The canal was certainly once in a lifetime experience and the rest was not too elegant but also not too shabby. Just the prices were too high (except the metro bus and subway), at least for tourists.
One awkward or unfortunate experience was with the postal mail service which is handled by “Correos y Telégrafos” in Panama. I arrived at the Tocumen airport and hotel (Hyatt Place Downtown Panama) in the night of Mar. 24 and my flight left in the night of Mar. 27. As these 3 day were the Easter holiday, the post offices were all closed. I actually walked to the main post office opposite to Basílica Menor Don Bosco as well as the one in Plaza Concordia near my hotel. There was no hole/opening outside these closed post offices and nor any post boxes in the streets for me to throw in my postcard, even if I could find a stamp. And of course, I couldn’t find any stamps to buy.
I tried a few times to talk to the receptionists in my hotel and it seemed that the hotel didn’t want to help their clients with the mails such as my postcard. There was one guy in the reception who smiled and declared that he could help me personally if I just gave him $2. His smile etc. somehow didn’t make me trust him and at the end, I didn’t take up his personal offer as I was not sure whether he would just throw away my postcard. At the receptionists’ suggestion, I did go to the Bristol hotel just a block down the hill but they couldn’t sell me any stamp and told me to go to Plaza Concordia. I also went to Marriot nearby and got the same result. Both Bristol and Marriot did ask me whether I had a reservation with them and esp. Marriott explicitly said that if I stayed there, they could help me mail my postcard.
It’d be great if Hyatt Place would be willing to do the same for their clients’ mails, esp. in holidays when the post offices are closed. I had suggested to them when they sent me email to ask for my feedback. I unfortunately have had to mail my postcard when I got back to US 😦
… One tiny bit to add : Though US coins are accepted and used in Panama, they did mint their own coins. I got a couple Panamanian quarters but I gave them up when I bought a 75 cent ice-cream on the way of leaving Casco Viejo. I still have the $2-worth metro card with 20 cents left in it 😎