July 30, 2006

Pleasure and Pain in Panama
Panama City, Panama

Every day that I spend in Panama City I find something new to like about this town—arguably the best capital in Central America. However, the hostel that I'm staying in leaves much to be desired.

I ended up scrambling out of San José, Costa Rica in a rush. After my brother departed for his morning flight back to the U.S., I casually dropped by the ticketing office for TICA, an international bus company.

Expecting to get a ride out of the city the same day (as I typically do), I panicked slightly when the staff told me the buses to Panama were full until the distant date of August 7th. I hoofed it back to the hostel, and rejoiced at discovery of an alternate busing option.

Across town I went to pick up a ticket for a 16-hour journey that was scheduled to depart in less than two hours. I had a lot to do and not much time to do it in: Buy ticket; pick up supplies to make necklaces out of shells from Playa Carmen; forge onward travel documentation; shower; pack, and so on…

I read warnings about how time consuming the Paso Canoas border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama could be, but experiencing the inefficiency in person was something else.

I was genuinely surprised that the border checkpoint was even open when we arrived, somewhere around 9:00 at night (typically these places close before dusk). Exiting Costa Rica was routine, but the Panamanian side of things was a mess: Walk 500-yards to a poorly marked window—wait—show proof of onward travel (that was time well spent creating my faux ticket); walk to an unmarked window to pay and receive a tourist card—wait—find a roaming guy and pay for a stamp for said card; go back to the first window—wait—show documents and receive a passport stamp; watch bags get unloaded from the bus; take backpack to a customs room; fill out form—wait—watch border official collect a paycheck for doing very little; return bag to bus—wait for everyone else to do the same—depart. All this took over an hour. I hear the it takes around four hours to do the same during the middle of the day.

It was a pleasant surprise when, earlier in the afternoon, I found out my bus was equipped with a functional DVD player. I was baffled though when the only DVD stocked was an annoying 2-hour collection of Tom & Jerry cartoons. I plan on keeping a single DVD in my pack just in case I encounter the same situation again. To pass the time I read another book (Getting Stoned With Savages) by flashlight, from start to finish. A good read.

Panama

Panama City

I knew I was someplace different when I stepped off the bus and into a massive, multi-story concrete bus terminal (that looked more like an airport than a bus depot). I took an enjoyable sunrise taxi to my hostel, situated in the middle of the condo/financial district of the capital city. Voyager International Hostel occupies the 3rd and 8th floor of a 9-story building—it's really an odd sensation to take an elevator to get to a hostel.

Panama City is by far the most vertically aggressive city I've seen since I left the United States. An actual metropolis, the large collection of 50-story commercial and residential skyscrapers dwarf the largest of cathedrals. It's been a very long time since I've seen buildings taller than the town church.

Building upwards

My first few days I spent wandering and searching for Panamanians. I walked the streets, but they were noticeably absent of pedestrians—everyone drives in this part of town. Most city streets look like L.A. highways, except in Panama City US$75,000 SUV's blaring Britney Spears drive alongside colorfully decorated chicken buses.

Taking refuge from the 100% humidity—it must be possible to have more than 100% in Panama—I strolled into a large, 5-story mall in the middle of the city. Greeted by the sound of "Up Town Girl" pushing through the speakers, I cringed at the sight of a Hard Rock Cafe, Panama. An empty mall—no locals.

I did finally manage to find droves of them though; all it took was getting on a bus out of the immediate area. This is one of the things I grew to love about Panama City: The diversity. I really liked the fact I could be surrounded by skyscrapers, but a 5-minute bus ride could bring me to a part of town where street vendors are king, not bankers financial analysts. Modern and Americanized enough to feel very comfortable in, but Central American enough for some of that enjoyable flavor. I found the city safe, the nightlife stimulating, and the shopping superb (I didn't indulge, but many others did—clothes especially). I almost always drink the tap water, and it's nice to see most others doing it Panama themselves. It would have been neat to have shown my brother this place.

Panamanian coins

For as many delights as Panama City offers, it also comes with a heavier price tag. Not quite at the crazy-expensive level of El Salvador, but similar to Puerto Rico (or perhaps slightly lower than Costa Rica). Panama uses the U.S. dollar as it's currency, but seems to insist on minting it's own coins—exactly the same size, weight, and domination's—even though Panama also uses the U.S. variety… I don't understand. That being said, spending my familiar home currency is one of my attractions to this place, and after living through heavy coin Hell for the past few months, I will never complain about the weight and size of U.S. coins again.

Voyager Hostel International

I really dislike this hostel. The living conditions have been annoying and uncomfortable (100% the fault of the staff and facilities). If it wasn't for the great socialization with other travelers, I would have relocated after my first night. I was in good company though, and saw more sunrises this past week than I have in the past two months—sleep deprived Craig.

The Panama Canal

A pair of US$0.25 bus rides take you to the highway entrance of the Miraflores Locks, the canal gateway to/from the Pacific. The pleasant observation facility at this location surprised me with a $5 entrance fee though (free for residents, $8 for the museum).

Standing alongside about 50 other tourists, I watched as a pair of very large vessels individually passed through the first trio of brilliantly engineered canal locks, en route for the Atlantic. A man speaks over the speaker system, explaining the process, details about the ship (such as the various flags on display, as well as disclosing how much the boat paid for passage), and some general trivia about the canal and its history.

I'm amazed that the Panama Canal is just a few years shy of turning 100. The raw effort required to plan and create such an amazing thing at the turn of the 20th century is impressive to me. As I travel, I'm surrounded by brilliant and brainless engineering. Sometimes people get it right, and sometimes it turns out to be a mess. It's worth a visit, but if ships moving through muddy water doesn't do it for you, bring along a bottle of Panama Jack rum like a friend of mine did the day before I went.

Ready for a New Continent

I've been trying to find a good home for my bulky guidebook to Central America all week, hoping to exchange it with a traveler headed north from South America for theirs. I had notices posted on the computers for all to see on a daily basis, but it would seem the majority of people are headed south, like me. I finally gave up and found a bookstore that carried new copies of the Lonely Plant series. Not having a guidebook was keeping me from departing Panama, and I'm sure it will be $35 well spent. Joy—it's even thicker and heavier than my prior one.

I think back on Central America and smile. A lot has happened since mid-April. I've seen and experienced many pleasant and painful things. My tendency to run away from major tourist attractions has left me with a string of intentionally bypassed places, some of which I'm sure are no doubt interesting (but didn't interest me at the time). Questions from another Central American traveler might go something like this:

Did you see Chichén Itzá or Palenque in Mexico?—nope. Caye Caulker in Belize?—not interested. Copán Ruinas in Honduras?—passed. Tikal in Guatemala?—didn't make it up there. Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua?—didn't have time, but I hear good things. Take a zip line tour at Monteverde in Costa Rica?—maybe next time. See Bocas del Toro or the San Blas islands in Panama?—I've already seen a lot of beautiful Caribbean this year. How about the Panama Canal?—mhmm, that one was pretty neat.

I learned a long time ago, you can't see it all.

Tomorrow evening I'll be heading off to Cartagena, Colombia. I've got no idea what to expect. I love the anticipation—the excitement that comes from being out of your comfort zone. I'm looking forward to seeing a new country—a new continent.

Comments:

Katie

July 31st, 2006

Oooh, pretty necklaces!

makiko

August 1st, 2006

I like Tom & Jerry! :)

Colombia

Craig | travelvice.com

August 1st, 2006

hehe — I don't mind Tom and Jerry in moderation, but it was pretty dated (I've never seen any where Tom talks), and I can't really take 2+ hours of it straight. ;)

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