Last stop in Panama

Panama City

6 April

I had arranged to have breakfast at 7am as we wanted to catch the 8am bus to Sona, which connected with a direct bus to Panama City. This particular bus was quite critical to catch as there wasn’t another until 12 noon.

We eventually got breakfast at 7.40am, by which time I was beginning to get a little agitated. However, I need not have worried, as we managed to get to the bus stop before 8am and the bus didn’t leave until 8.15am anyway! It is a bit of a problem with the buses here as you never quite know the exact time they are supposed to leave (even if the timetable tells you) and then they are likely to leave at a different time anyway. It is a bit disconcerting for an anxious Western traveller!

Road to Thomas's house at Lagartero Bay
Road to Thomas’s house at Lagartero Bay

The bus to Sona was very slow initially as it stopped and started along the way, filling up with passengers, but we still got to Sona before 10am, only to find that the bus to Panama left at 10.30am and not 10.15 as per the timetable! We had time therefore, for a quick visit to a cafe for Thomas’s second breakfast and then to go to the supermarket for snacks.

Going over the Bridge of the Americas
Going over the Bridge of the Americas
Waterfront park in Panama City
Water front park in Panama City

The bus to Panama was quite comfortable, had a toilet (the first bus with one since Mexico) and was supposedly air conditioning, although this didn’t seem to work except when we stopped. It was therefore, quite hot on the bus as none of the windows opened either, so we were both fairly drowsy.

It was actually quite a boring trip, through Santiago and down the Pan American highway, which travels mainly along the flat, dry plains. Although not a chicken bus, we did actually have some parrots (in a cage) along for the ride. We had one stop for lunch at a roadside cafe but the queue was too long for us to bother, so we contented ourselves with bananas and biscuits. Highly nutritious!

We arrived in Panama City at about 3.30pm and got a taxi to the hotel from the bus station, which seemed to be quite a way out of the city centre. The hotel I had booked was very disappointing, the room being a soulless concrete box with no window or indeed any redeeming features, so not exactly appealing or the sort of place we wanted to spend much time in.

Panama City
Panama City

We went out for a walk along the water front in search of something to eat and drink. Apart from the park, the area we found ourselves in was completely deserted and it proved quite hard to find anything open. (Probably because it was the financial district). The park, however, was well set up for walking, cycling and roller blading and was obviously well used. We eventually stopped at some sort of fast (slow) food chicken place and then visited the large supermarket up the road. There must be a lot of Americans living here, given the content of the shelves! After that, we strolled back to the hotel where we found that the internet had decided to connect and had a relaxing evening watching television and catching up on internet things.

Panama

7 April

Thomas had a bit of sorting out with his passport to do today, so after breakfast we dropped off the laundry down the road and then went to a large shop where we were told he could get passport photos. Having done this, he went off to the Consulate and I decided to get a much needed haircut in the shop, which seemed to sell just about everything, including haircuts!

Street in Panama City
Street in Panama City
Revolution Tower in Panama City
Revolution Tower in Panama City

After standing in the salon for a few minutes and being ignored, I suddenly realised that the reception desk was outside so went and booked in (essentially, got a number so that I was next in line). It was a bit of a bewildering system to an outsider as, when my number was called, I then had to go and pay, which I couldn’t do because the eftpos machine wasn’t working (which I wasn’t going to use anyway).

A very helpful English speaking man, with very long dreadlocks, offered to explain anything to me that I didn’t understand, which was wonderful, as I became somewhat alarmed when the hairdresser produced the men’s clippers. I really didn’t want a number 1!! She assured me it was only a number 3 and proceeded to shear me like a sheep. The haircuts are getting more interesting as I go along… Thankfully, it all turned out well, and she did use the scissors afterwards. It was also the cheapest haircut ever – a grand total of $4.

Buildings in Panama City
Buildings in Panama City
Panama City construction sites
Panama City construction sites

I spent much of the rest of the day walking around the city, which I concluded that, apart from the waterfront, wasn’t a city conducive to walking. The buildings are a very big mix of old and new and there seem to be cranes constructing new ones everywhere. I was heading for the air conditioning in a shopping mall and got a bit lost at one stage and ended up walking over wasteland, following a local, who then hopped over a barrier onto the road when the footpath ended in a pile of rubbish. I followed suit.

Waste land in Panama City
Waste land in Panama City

By the time I arrived at the Mall, I was very tired so sat and had a coffee and a cinnamon bun, which was far too sickly sweet to finish. However, thus rejuvenated, I strolled around the shops, which seemed to be mostly designer stores. So much for the cheap shopping in Panama City!

Ships on the horizon waiting to enter the Canal
Ships on the horizon waiting to enter the Canal

I wandered along the waterfront and back to the room, where Thomas arrived soon after. He had not achieved his purpose, as he had to get a police report to say that the passport had been lost. He was sent from pillar to post and the place he had been told to get it had a queue a mile long so he had decided to go back early tomorrow morning.

Black sky in Panama City
Black sky in Panama City

We went and picked up our now washed and dried clothes and stopped at the small cafe next door to the hotel for dinner. This was run by a delightful family, there was no menu and the choice was beef or chicken. They all, even the young daughter, practised their English on us, whilst Thomas, at least, persevered with his Spanish. The chicken, when it arrived, was one of the tastiest meals I had had for a while.

Outside, there were police milling around as there was a big political rally happening up the road. It seems that Panamanians are very passionate about politics and as there is a General Election at the beginning of May, there are flags supporting one or other of the parties on houses and cars all over the country. The current President has apparently achieved a great deal during office but is only allowed to stand for one term.

It was an early night tonight as we were both tired after our exertions of the day.

Panama City

8 April

Metro in Panama
Metro in Panama

I spent the entire morning in the room catching up with emails, internet etc and waiting for Thomas to return from the Consulate. Another complication was added to the passport saga, which meant further trekking around the city to another office later on. (An interesting little aside – the Honorary Consul hasn’t had to speak English for 2 years, which may give an indication as to how many New Zealanders pass through Panama, who require consular services! She also didn’t seem too familiar with the procedures for lost passports.)

We decided to go on the brand, spanking new metro to Allbrook Shopping Mall. Indeed, the metro is so new, Panamanians were taking pictures of the train and themselves on it. There were a number of staff around to help with the acquiring of a transport card and loading it with money, and also, at the end of the day, to instruct people to move along the platform and restrict the number of people actually on the platform! It all looked very, very clean so I would have to wonder how long that will last? There is currently only one line open and some of the stations along the line that had obviously not yet been completed. However, it is obviously extremely well used.

Allbrook Bus Station
Allbrook Bus Station

Panama City certainly seems to have streamlined its transport as we got off the metro, crossed a bridge to the main ‘Terminales des Autobuses’ and then went across another bridge straight into the mall, which is reputedly the biggest in Central America.

Neither of us like shopping, especially in big malls but I had wanted to come primarily to replace my t-shirts, which I am now sick of the sight of and are looking somewhat the worse for wear. Thomas took one look at the size of the place and decided not to stay, so we had some lunch and he went off to complete the replacement passport process.

Food Court in Allbrook shopping Mall
Food Court in Allbrook Shopping Mall

I wandered around the shops (or rather some of them) and wondered who bought all the items in the stores, which were bulging with stock for very small people. I will admit that Panamanians are not very tall, but they are, generally speaking, not the thinnest race on the planet. Why then, is it, that everything I tried on, including the large sizes, were too small for me? There were several times I picked up clothes that thought might fit me, only to find I was in the maternity section! As far as I am aware, I have not suddenly put on several inches around my waist and hips over the last three months so maybe the Panamanians are deluding themselves (or maybe I am?).

Allbrook Metro Station
Allbrook Metro Station

I caught the metro back at a very busy time so there were hordes of people on the platform but I was the only foreign face, so obviously the tourists haven’t found the metro yet. Thomas, who had the room key, wasn’t back so I sat in the reception area and waited for him.

After a bit of much needed rest and recuperation, we went out to find somewhere to eat and ended up in a Mexican restaurant. The area we are staying in is not a particularly good one and there is definitely a lack of eating places, so we had to walk quite a way. It was near a supermarket though, so we replenished our supplies of mangoes and papaya. Afterwards, he went off to the internet cafe (internet being totally unreliable in the hotel) and I came back and read.

Panama City

9 April

Today, we decided to go to the Miraflores Lock on the Panama Canal where we could watch the ships going through as well as go to the Visitor Centre that houses a museum and has a 3-D film about the Canal.

Grain carrier going through the Miraflores Lock
Grain carrier going through the Miraflores Lock

Having vetoed the proposal from Thomas to get a taxi, we walked down to the main road along the waterfront and got a Metro Bus to Allbrook Bus terminal (the centre of the universe as far as bus transport in Panama is concerned). We had read on Google, the fount of all wisdom, that we could get a ‘Diablo Rioja’ i.e. local bus specific to Panama City, that was heading to Gamboa, our destination for tomorrow, that went via Miraflores. The Diablo Riojas (or ‘Red Devils’) are the brightly painted old school buses that are individually owned and operated and are decorated according to the owner’s inclinations. Apparently, the City is trying to phase them out and, having seen the black smoke belching out of some of their exhausts, I am not surprised. They certainly add a little ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the landscape though!

Having arrived at Allbrook, it took a little bit of investigation to find out where the bus went from and we then had to buy a transport card that would allow us to pass through a turnstile, as the ones we had already got apparently weren’t valid for this. That done, we boarded a lovely pink bus and waited about 10 minutes for a driver, by which time, I think, everyone on the bus was dripping in the heat. As soon as he arrived, we were off with a roar and a bump and out into the traffic.

Grain carrier exiting the lock
Grain carrier exiting the lock

It only took about 20 minutes to get to Miraflores and then another 5 or 10 minute walk to the Visitor Centre. Whilst we were walking, a very nice air-conditioned Metrobus passed us, much to Thomas’s disgust, as we could obviously have got this one from Allbrook, rather than the local bus. However, it all added to his experience and we had a practice run for tomorrow when we will have to catch the local bus again to travel to Gamboa.

Grain carrier exiting the locks and heading for the Bridge of the Americas
Grain carrier exiting the locks and heading for the Bridge of the Americas and the Pacific

When we arrived at the Centre, which has 5 levels with Observation areas on each, a ship was just going through the lock, so we watched that for quite some time. We then had a sandwich, after which we went into the Museum, which we were able to see part of, before going into the theatre for the 3-D film. This was interesting for us, particularly, as neither of us had been to a 3-D film before. The film itself, however, was more a bit of self promotion than something very educational or informative.

Ship approaching to go through the lock
Ships approaching to go through the lock

Once this had ended, we went back and saw the rest of the Museum by which time, it was 2.45pm, the time we had been told the next ships would be going through the locks. I had read that the busiest time for ships is between 8-11am and 3-6pm and our experience today would certainly bear this out. There were no ships between when we arrived, at about 12 noon, until these ones.

Car carrier in the lock being watched by the tourists
Car carrier in the lock being watched by the tourists

We watched the tugs go out to pull 2 car carriers into the lock. Ahead of them, were a catamaran and a sail boat that had been tied together and which were pulled through the locks by line haulers (men attached to ropes!). The larger ships went through under their own power but had vehicles attached to them to prevent them hitting the sides of the Canal. It was certainly a very tight squeeze!

The lock gate opening
The lock gate opening

We stood and watched for quite some time as both the car carriers went right through the locks. As they were leaving, a container ship had just entered at the other end and there were more ships waiting to go through later. Apparently, ships coming from the Pacific side go through in the mornings and those from the Atlantic side pass through in the afternoons. There are about 35-40 ships using the Canal in each 24 hour period. The big ships have priority during the day, whilst the smaller vessels usually go through at night. It takes 8-10 hours to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Two car carriers and two yachts in the lock
Two car carriers and two yachts in the lock

It is the Canal’s centenary this year and they are hoping to have the Canal extensions completed. These are to allow larger ships to use it. (The Nicaraguans have just agreed to build a new Canal, funded by the Chinese, in Nicaragua, that will large enough for even the biggest ships to use, so it will be interesting, in the future, to see how this affects the Panama Canal.)

Car carrier and yachts in the last stage of the locks
Car carrier and yachts in the last stage of the locks
Two car carriers in the Miraflores Lock
Two car carriers in the Miraflores Lock
Strange man dresses as a chicken
Strange man dressed as a chicken (I have no idea….!!)

We caught the Metrobus back to Allbrook, where we spent a little time in the shops whilst Thomas looked, unsuccessfully, for some shoes. We then decided it would be easier to have dinner at the Foodcourt, rather than go back to the hotel and try and find somewhere to eat in an area that was seriously lacking in cafes.

Once back at the hotel (on the Metro), we settled in for the rest of the evening, reading and watching some TV. (Alas, no internet in the room, yet again!)

Gamboa

10 April

Thankfully, today, we left our cell of a room and headed out of the city to Gamboa for a few days. This is on Lake Gatun, which is the ‘middle’ part of the Canal between the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side and the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks on the Pacific side. It is in the Saborania Rainforest Park, which is renowned for bird and plant species that may not be found elsewhere in Panama. The Smithsonian Institute also has a research centre here.

Spot Thomas in the Food court
Spot Thomas in the Food court
Road and rail bridge into Gamboa
Road and rail bridge into Gamboa

We left the hotel at about 11am and set off for Allbrook bus terminal, a place with which we seem to be coming remarkably familiar! Unfortunately, we had just missed a bus and the next one wasn’t for more than an hour, so we sat in the food court and thought about having some lunch. The hour passed easily enough, reading, people watching and eating. I took a photo or two and was told off by security, as this apparently wasn’t allowed. (Even though I had seen quite a number of phones being used as cameras.)

Being unfamiliar with the bus system, meant that we went to get on the bus about 10 minutes before it was due to leave. However, it might have been a good idea to get there earlier as, of course, it was very full by the time we arrived. Travelling with a back pack on a full ‘Diablo Rioja’ is not the most ideal situation but there is no other transport to Gamboa, so it had to be done. Luckily, it wasn’t too much of an issue, as I was just told to put my pack down the back and I managed to find a seat relatively near, so could almost keep an eye on it. Thomas had put his bag by the driver, which was a bit more problematic, as the bus was standing room only for most of the way and therefore it was impossible to watch.

Smithsonian Institute at Gamboa
Smithsonian Institute at Gamboa

The driver, like some of the others, had little regard for the comfort of the passengers, going fast around corners and braking hard when necessary. He obviously liked the sound of his horn and, at one stop, hit the side of the bus stop, pulling a strip of metal (?) off of it. He didn’t even bother to get out and have a look, but just drove on!

A lot of the passengers were school children and at one stop, a lot of primary school children got on, who managed to squash their way into any available seats. At one point, I happened to glance at Thomas, who had a little girl in front of him, just staring at him, whilst he tried to ignore her. I laughed out loud and all the children around me, stared at me, wondering, I am sure, what on earth I was laughing at.

Our room
Our room

When we got off the bus in Gamboa, Thomas’s first words were “I am not going back on that” but, unless he is going to walk, he does not have a choice. We found our way to the Gamboa Bed and Breakfast that I had booked on Sabrina’s recommendation. It was wonderful. We were warmly greeted by Mateo and his wife who spoke no English, which meant Thomas had lots of Spanish practice. Lucky for me that he was with me as, otherwise, I would have been totally lost.

Gamboa house (our room was on the upper floor)
Gamboa house (our room was on the upper floor)
Bromeliads growing on the tree branches
Bromeliads growing on the tree branches

Our room, which was across the road from their house, was in fact part of another house, so we had a big lounge area, as well as the bedroom. There was one other room but nobody booked in, and so we had the place to ourselves. What a difference it makes to the mental well-being to be surrounded by trees instead of concrete! The rainforest is right on the doorstep, so we anticipated seeing lots of birds and animals.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon reading. Thomas fell asleep and eventually we went for a walk at about 5pm when it had cooled down a bit. This took us past part of the Smithsonian research area, the construction of a new part of the Institute and to the ‘Tienda’ or shop, where we bought supplies for the evening. There doesn’t actually seem to be anywhere to have dinner here so it could be sandwiches for the next couple of days! We then spent a little while watching a ship go through the Canal before heading back to our abode.

Ship going through the Canal at Gamboa
Ship going through the Canal at Gamboa

The evening passed quickly, as it tends to do when you have a good book to read. I am now converted to ebooks, which I can download from the Auckland library, which I am hoping is not going to realise that I am no longer resident and cancel my membership!

Gamboa

11 April

I got up early and went for a walk down the hill to check out what was going through the Canal this morning. I only saw one ship and nothing else was lined up, so came back and had some breakfast, having checked to see if Thomas was awake. Mateo was very chatty, as usual, this morning, so I have been very fortunate to have Thomas with me to translate or I would have missed a lot of information.

House in Gamboa
House in Gamboa
Agouti in Mateo's garden
Agouti (spelling?) in Mateo’s garden
Thomas on the Pipeline walk
Thomas on the Pipeline Walk

We had noticed yesterday, when we were walking around the village, that the houses were nothing like the standard Panamanian houses. This, Mateo told us, was because the Americans had built them all, when they were building the Canal, for the American families working on the construction, using Californian redwoods, no less. Admittedly, they are all looking somewhat the worse for wear now though!

After breakfast, I read whilst Thomas did some exercises and then we headed for the Pipeline Road, which was a couple of kilometres walk away and a renowned bird observation place. There is a Canopy Tower, which we decided we didn’t need to pay $20 each to climb, especially given that, by then, it was then nearly midday and therefore not the best time to be observing birds, and also, given my powers of wildlife spotting, I probably wouldn’t have been able to see anything anyway without someone pointing it out to me!

We walked for a while in the rainforest and agreed that we had seen more bird life in Mateo’s garden than here, so turned around and began walking back to the village. We met a French boy along the way, who decided to walk along with us, and we left him at the bus stop to go back to Panama City, whilst we wandered down to the jetty to find out about a boat trip for tomorrow.

Public jetty in Gamboa
Public jetty in Gamboa

We were immediately hailed by Ali, who nattered to Thomas in Spanish, from which conversation we gathered it would be $40 each for a two hour trip and we would see a lot of wildlife. This seeming a little steep in price, we walked back across the bridge to the opposite side of the Chagres River and enquired at the hotel jetty about trips. As we approached, a coach load of tourists arrived, donned life jackets and set off in a couple of boats. If this was not enough to deter us, the prices here most definitely were, so we decided to go with the local boat operator and Thomas phoned Ali later to confirm. We sat at the jetty for a while and had a beer before going back to our room for a bit of rest and recuperation (reading for me and reading/sleeping for Thomas!)

Tourists at Gamboa
Tourists at Gamboa
Hotel jetty at Gamboa
Hotel jetty at Gamboa
Ship on the Canal
Ship on the Canal

Next on the agenda, was another wander down to the Canal to watch the ships, having first replenished supplies at the shop. Thomas main mission is to see a Maersk ship pass through but so far this has not been accomplished, and, indeed, it wasn’t this evening either. We are having difficulty working out when exactly the ships are most likely to come through here, given that we were told the busiest times at Miraflores were 8-11am and 3-6pm. However, our logic doesn’t seem to be working and it is very hit and miss as to whether there are ships or not.

Mateo had also told us this morning that there was a kayak race today from Colon to Panama with the kayaks going through the locks with the big ships. However, there was no sign of them either. It was obviously not our lucky day, but there is always tomorrow…!

Mateo and Beatrice's verandah
Mateo and Beatrice’s verandah

After that, it was back to our accommodation for an early night. As we walked past, Mateo called us in to meet his son, who spoke some English and who looked after the emails and website enquiries for them. We were given some ice cream whilst we chatted and were also introduced to a German and Italian couple who were staying in the cabins. It seems we have got the ‘use when required’ part of the accommodation, as there are two cabins attached to Mateo’s house and we are in a house across the road that doesn’t actually belong to him. However, this has worked very well for us as the cabins look quite small and we have got a substantial space to ourselves.

Gamboa

12 April

We got up very early this morning as we had booked the boat trip for 7am, thinking that it would be a good time to see the wildlife. We had allowed half an hour to walk down to the jetty but, as we were walking past his house, Mateo called out to Thomas and said he would drive us down, so we arrived very early for the trip.

Manuel, our boat driver on the Canal
Manuel, our boat driver on the Canal

Ali was, of course, nowhere to be seen, although there was quite a lot of activity on the jetty. Manuel, who was apparently a friend of Ali’s, took us out, so we assumed that Ali was just the salesman! It was a beautiful morning and we sped under the bridge and then followed a ship up the Canal, past Gamboa village, until we turned off into a swampy tributary, where we saw crocodile trails going into the water and even a tail, the only part that was visible of the reptile itself. It was enough to make me think twice about hanging my hands over the edge of the boat!

Rainforest on the Canal
Rainforest on the Canal
A blue bird in the Rainforest
A blue bird in the Rainforest
Capuchin monkeys
Capuchin monkeys

The rest of the trip was spent cruising up and around other tributaries, which were all part of the Gatun Lake. We saw a sloth, hanging upside down from a branch, asleep, (not sure how or why it doesn’t fall off!), howler monkeys, and some capuchins that practically landed in the boat, they were so keen to have a look at us. There were also a number of different birds pointed out to us. The vegetation was typical of the rainforest and very dense in places. The water was also at an extremely low level, and there were a lot of logs etc exposed that will not be visible once the rainy season starts in about a month.

When we arrived back at the jetty, Mateo was there, having brought the Italian/German couple down for their trip, so he gave us a lift back to the house, where we had a very welcome coffee or two and breakfast. It is quite alarming to realise how coffee dependent I am and that I need two cups in the morning to be able to function properly!

After breakfast, it was time for a bit more reading. At my current rate, I am getting through one book a day so it is a good job that I downloaded a number of them. Thomas has been forced to read the one physical book that I had brought, which he has classified as a ‘girl’s’ book but is reading out of desperation.

On the Canal
On the Canal
A structure on the Canal
A structure on the Canal

At midday, we walked down to the Canal again, via the shop, and took up position in our usual place on the other side of the railway line. For some reason, there were a number of soldiers around today, controlling the traffic on the bridge, amongst other things, and we were told by a couple of them that we couldn’t sit where we were because it was on the wrong side of the tracks. We reluctantly moved on but, instead, climbed up to a spot above the bridge where we had an excellent view of the traffic going across the bridge and of the Canal going towards the Pacific.

As it was Saturday, it was quite busy on the bridge and Mateo had told us that people get impatient waiting for the lights (it being a one lane bridge) and there has been chaos when the queues from both sides decide to go at the same time and they meet in the middle. This was presumably why the traffic was being controlled. There also seemed to be a number of kayaks around, so we think the race might have been today, as well as lots of tourist buses filled with people who had been out on Canal trips.

The rail/road bridge in Gamboa
The rail/road bridge in Gamboa
Looking up the Canal towards the Pacific
Looking up the Canal towards the Pacific

We spent quite an entertaining hour or two watching the activity beneath us before we decided we had had enough and walked back to our room. The rest of the day was spent reading (just for a change!)

Panama

13 April

We got up leisurely and had our last breakfast on Mateo and Beatrice’s veranda. It is such a peaceful haven, sitting watching the birds in the garden and Mateo and Beatrice were so welcoming that I was sorry to leave.

Thomas with Mateo and Beatrice
Thomas with Mateo and Beatrice
Thomas feeding a squirrel
Thomas feeding a squirrel
Cashew tree
Cashew tree

We packed up and walked down the road to the bus stop, where we waited, under a cashew tree, for some while for the bus to come. The trip back to the City wasn’t quite as traumatic as the one coming. As it was Sunday, there were far fewer people on the bus and no school children. We sat at the back with our bags, nontheless, and were treated to the full blast of the loud music emitting forth from the large speakers behind our seats. We also felt every bump in the road!

The driver raced along, stopping and starting, in the usual fashion and by the time we reached the city, the bus was full. We had intended to catch the metro to our hotel but when we saw the crowds of people heading for the station, we changed our minds and hailed a taxi instead. Travelling on a packed metro with a back pack really didn’t seem like a bright idea. From the taxi driver, we learned that the metro was free for a month, the Government having given this as a pre-election favour and apparently, as I read later, it was damaging the taxi drivers’ businesses, as they were now having to chase fares.

House with election flags
House with election flags
View of the new road around Cascjo Viejo
View of the new road around Cascjo Viejo
View towards the City
View towards the City
View from the hotel in Panama
View from the hotel in Panama

Our hotel was a vast improvement on our last one in the City and had the most spectacular view from our 6th floor room over both the modern and the old cities. It was also beautifully spacious. However, the air conditioning unit was a little old and extremely noisy (to put it politely) and the water was a bit temperamental about coming out of the taps, which was somewhat problematic when you are covered in soap in the shower and the water stops!

Thomas was getting desperate to go for a run but didn’t have any running shoes so we ventured out into the street to try and find some. Having gone to the department store and stocked up on supplies but not found any shoes, we walked back and eventually found a pair at a shop close to the hotel. I was getting very tired and scratchy (who, me?!) by this stage so was very keen to get back. The area we are in is a little dodgy and having been to the money machine and done so shopping, I was definitely more heavily loaded than I was comfortable with being.

View from the overbridge
View from the overbridge

We packed the shopping into the fridge (another excellent bonus of the hotel) and walked down to the waterfront park so that Thomas could run and I could sit and people watch. This is always fascinating to me and on a Sunday, in what must be the busiest park in the City, it was even more so. There were people everywhere, the Panamanians obviously loving to stroll out with their families. It was extremely noisy with car horns blaring and a couple of groups of drummers practising. Luckily, there were separate lanes along the path for runners/cyclists or Thomas would have been fighting his way through the crowds.

Playground in the park
Playground in the park
Drummers practising
Drummers practising

I wandered around and had only just sat on the sea wall when Thomas returned. We ambled back to the hotel and indulged in a rum and coke, the first for quite a few days, and did nothing for the rest of the evening.

Chiriqui Indians at the waterfront
Chiriqui Indians at the waterfront

Panama City

14 April

Today we decided to visit Casco Viejo, which is the old part of Panama City. It is actually very close to where we are staying but it took us a while to work out how to get there. The bus routes are very hard to determine and it seems that you just have to look at the front of the buses as they approach to see where they are going and stop them if they are the one you want. It is all a bit tentative and haphazard. (Later this evening, I actually found a website showing the bus routes but it was a bit late by then!)

Casco Viejo

Naturally, we got the wrong bus and ended up walking through one of the more salubrious areas to get to the old town. It was all quite dirty and smelly but there were some quite intriguing little shops along the way, including one full of the materials that the Kuna ladies, from the San Blas islands, obviously make their dresses. We are getting used to these areas though as it is very like the one we are staying in.

Casco Viejo, itself, was very interesting as there are some buildings that have been restored and are functioning as very smart restaurants and cafes, as well as museums and Government buildings, and yet right next door there are buildings that are in the process of being restored or are still ruins or slums. There is obviously a major initiative to restore the buildings, as there is a great deal of work in progress.

Cathedral in Casco Viejo
Cathedral in Casco Viejo

Once we had wandered around for a while and had had a much needed shot of caffeine in an overpriced tourist cafe, we walked along the waterfront to the fish market to have some lunch. The market is adjacent to the jetty where all the fishing boats off load their catch and there are a number of small cafes/food stalls where ceviche of various sorts and filet of fish with plantains is the staple menu. Not surprisingly therefore, we had ceviche (for me) and fish (for Thomas) for lunch!

Fish market
Fish market
Cafes in the fish market
Cafes in the fish market
Panama hats
Panama hats

We then felt we needed a rest so headed back to the room, taking our lives in our hands, crossing the road where there was continuous traffic flowing. We eventually followed some Panamanians, who just put up their hands to make the traffic stop so they could cross, an action that seemed somewhat foolhardy to me, but had the desired effect! On the way back, Thomas stopped at a street barbers and had an entertaining haircut. However, they obviously saw the foreigner coming, as he was charged more than I had been for mine!

Apart from venturing out to get cold drinks and kebabs from a street stall, we spent the remainder of the day in our room where I could sit on my bed and watch the traffic and people without having to be in the thick of the noise, smells and heat.

Panama City

15 April

I awoke early to the sound of horns tooting. It is not a quiet area and even though we are on the 6th floor, we can still hear everything that is going on in the street, including the jackhammers that were hard at work at 1am! Hopefully, this means they have made some progress on the road below and will not be turning the water off again today (as they did yesterday).

Sunrise - view from my bed!
Sunrise – view from my bed!

This morning, we took the metro to Allbrook bus station, which is still a bit of a mystery, as it is not clear which bus goes where, so it was somewhat of a miracle that we found the one to Amador. Thomas had decided that he wanted to go for a run along the Causeway and I wanted to go and have a look.

Marina at Amador (Isla Flamencos)
Marina at Amador (Isla Flamencos)
Ships and boats at Amador
Ships and boats at Amador
Amador Causeway
Amador Causeway

The bus took us right to Isla Flamenco, which is at the far end where there was very little apart from yachting marinas, a resort or two and some cafes. There was also a good view of the ships queueing up to go through the Canal. We haven’t quite worked out why the ships are not sent through the Canal faster when there are so many waiting, but there must be a reason and not just Panamanian inefficiency, which is the reason Thomas tends to favour. There do seem to be a lot of times when nothing is passing through though.

Thomas went off for his run and I walked back along the waterfront hoping to find a cup of coffee. However, none of the cafes were open (after all, it was only 11am!) so I continued walking until I met Thomas coming back the other way. We were both extremely hot and dripping by this stage and in dire need of some rehydration. However, there was nowhere in sight, so we waited for the bus to take us back to the food court at Allbrook Mall.

Bridge of the Americas from the Causeway
Bridge of the Americas from the Causeway

The bus driver on this route, was probably one of the worst we have had. She (unfortunately) drove as fast as she could and seemed a little reluctant to pick up any passengers. It was sheer good fortune that she deigned to pick us up as she certainly left passengers behind at other stops.

Very colourful museum under construction
Very colourful museum under construction – designed by Frank Gehry
Kuna lady from whom I bought my mola
Kuna lady from whom I bought my mola (she is wearing one round her waist and others are hanging on the wall behind)

The foodcourt was the first stop and we eventually got some fruit smoothies after an exceedingly long wait at the stall. I did a bit of shopping afterwards and then we got the metro back. For some reason that we didn’t understand but the Panamanians thought was very funny, the train didn’t stop at our station but just carried on so we had to get another train back again. It was all very strange!

Thomas then went back to the room whilst I ventured into a handcraft market across the road. This definitely did not appear to be a foreign tourist type of place but seemed to cater more for Panamanian visitors. (The area is not on the tourist route.) It had a lot of the mola type needlework that is made by the Kuna tribe women (and yes, I bought one) and there were a number of people sewing in very small rooms. Some of the shops were also selling the dresses that the various tribes wear.

Fishing boats with Casco Viejo in the background
Fishing boats with Casco Viejo in the background

Later on, after I had ventured in to the internet cafe to print out my airline ticket, with Thomas’s help, we went back to the fish market for dinner. On the way, the heavens opened unexpectedly and we got a little wet to say the least but the shower didn’t last long. The menus hadn’t changed since yesterday so we had ceviche and fish (not that this is a problem!). For some reason, there have been many more people around today and queues upon queues at the money machines. A number of shops have also been closed because of a religious festival.

By the time we returned to the hotel, there was really only time for sorting out and packing up before bed.

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