Tuesday, 16th September
We enjoyed our hotel this morning and had a lazy start to the day. I got up for the free breakfast which was basically toast and cereals with tea and coffee but nice nonetheless. Then we enjoyed the hot showers. Cold showers have their place in the tropics but it is nice to have a hot shower from time to time to get properly clean. We then had a think about what to do in Panama City. There’s not a heap of things to do here which suits us as we are quiet fatigued and like the idea of slowing down the pace before we hit Colombia. We thought we might check out the Miraflores lock of the Panama Canal and also there’s an old part of town, Casco Antiguo (also known as Casco Viejo). There is also a natural park in the city with trails and wildlife but to be honest we’ve just had an amazing two weeks of that in Costa Rica and there’s also the Panama Canal Railway which runs alongside the canal from Panama City on the Pacific coast to Colon on the Atlantic coast. Depending on what time the train leaves in the morning that’s something else we might do. Other than that we are keen to enjoy the air-conditioning of our hotel room, not to mention the back-to-bcak crime shows on the cable TV in our room (NCIS, CSI, Law and Order and the like). It’s amazing what you will watch when everything else in in Spanish; we have over one hundred channels but are restricted to American crime shows.
We decided on visiting Casco Viejo today, the old quarter and liked what we saw. We got there by Metro, there is one line in the city running North to South and is only 35 cents a ride. We caught the Metro part way to ‘Cinco de Mayo’ station (there’s always something called ‘Cinco de Mayo’ in a central american city) then jumped in a cab to take us the final short hop to the old Cathedral. We always opt for a cathedral as destination if we don’t know the area as they tend to be in the centre and it’s always a good way to get your bearings. There are loads of old, colonial style buildings here in different colours and right by the water’s edge. After some wandering around and taking photos, we stopped for a delicious coffee. Panamaian grown and roasted and the first latte we’ve had in some time. Most of the coffee around here is startight-up black which I do like but it’s nice to get something different every now and again. This part of town is defintatly a mix of old and delaptiated and new and polished. There is seemingly a big project going on to smarten up the area with a lot of construction going on, re-doing old buildings inside but keeping the outside shell. This seems the place to come for a fancy meal or a US$10 sandwich. Amongst all the fanciness there are sill clearly originally owned buildings looking in a sad state but it’s also nice to see that the gentrification hasn’t claimed everything.
The sky darkened after threatening to do so for some time and we decided to get a cab back to the Metro station before the rain started to fall which in our experience it doesn’t do unless it pours torrentially (we are int he tropics, after all). We managed to get to the Metro station just in time and caught a train to a shopping mall (Albrook) which is massive. We had some things to buy and thought this was a good opportunity to do it. As it turns out we spent about three hours in there as we got lost several times. It is a huge shopping mall and apparently very popular, even during the day on a Tuesday. It’s just next to the Grand Tranport Terminal where we first arrived into Panama City. On the way out of the mall we got some groceries as the hotel we are staying in has a kitchen and it’s a good chance to get back on budget by cooking for ourselves. After dinner we kicked back and watched some American crime shows before crashing. We are certainly leading exciting lives in the evenings here, no doubt about it.
Wednesday, 17th September
The same morning routine saw us get up latish, eat breakfast and have our hot showers before heading out, this time to the Panama Canal, 100 hundred years old this year. The start of the canal is easily reached from the city at the Miraflores locks. We caught the Metro again then tried to catch a bus from the Albrook terminal to the locks but after a lot of walking around and no luck with the directions we were given we opted for a can ride instead. My Spanish was good enough to ask the right questions and to get the directions but clearly not good enough to understand the answers.
We got the locks (with the original lock gates, from 1914) just as a ship was finishing it’s entry into the canal so after watching the end of that we walked around the exhibition inside of the canal construction, it’s current use and expansion. It’s a pricey visitors centre, costing US$15 to get in (locals cost US$2, perhaps the biggest disparity we have come across so far, I think I’m right in saying that’s a 750% increase for tourists). We were there at around 11am and the next ship wasn’t due through until 2:30pm so, after decided that there wasn’t really much to entertain us there for over two hours, we decided to catch a bus back to Albrook mall and have lunch in the food court after which I would come back and Kirsty would head back to the hotel (not feeling well, no fevers this time just a cold). I tried to catch a bus back but after being told by four different people to stand in four different spots I finally opted to get a cab back to Miraflores lock. The entry ticket was valid all day so I just walked on in again and this time there were two large container ships in the lock system. I watched them finish their passage then another two massive ships entered and passed through, a container ship and a car carrier. It’s amazing seeing these ships pass right through and with only inches to spare on either side of the canal. It can cost up to half a million dollars for the biggest ships to pass as we are constantly reminded of on the tannoy. I found this strange to have a ship pass though and for them to gleefully announce how much money the toll is. The thing is though although it costs so much to pass through, the ships save on average 21 days in travel by avoiding going around the whole of South America. It takes around half an hour for a ship to pass through this lock and 8-9 hours to pass through the whole canal. It really is kind incredible to think of how they cut a country in half with this canal. They are currently expanding the locks in the canal to allow larger and more ships to pass through.
Satisfied that I had my US$15 worth (well, almost) and satisfied at having seen four ships pass through the lock I caught a bus back to the Albrook mall transport hub and caught the Metro back to the hotel where we had a lazy afternoon and ate leftovers for dinner.
Thursday, 18th September
We are getting good at not rising too early here and getting our eight hours sleep. It helps that there are no parrots squawking in the morning or mis-firing cockerels going off at 3am. We have found the cockerels in Central America to be the most unusual in that they crow in the middle of the night quite often. I had my coffee on the front porch, it really is a nice hotel with lots of covered open areas to enjoy the warm weather without sitting in the direct sunlight. It’s also nice to sit around and have a slow coffee knowing that you don’t have any plans for the day. When I think of all that we’ve covered in the past six months it really is no wonder that we are feeling the fatigue. The only must-does today are to find a post office and a back to change some money that I kept hold of, not impressed with the border town exchange rates.
After breakfast we set out to the Casco Antiguo part of Panama City again for a coffee, having been there the other day and liking the setting. There are also some nice cafes around there. We caught the Metro to the Cinco de Mayo station again, and again a cab to the Cathedral in Casco Antiguo (old quarter). Once there we wandered around for a bit before finding a cafe which looked nice. We found such a place and had a late morning coffee, something we have missed since being away. It seems a bit mad to catch a train and cab to get a coffee but we did really enjoy having our coffee here the other day so it didn’t quite so mad to us today. Rather than get a cab back to the Metro station we decide to walk along the Central Avenue to see another part of Panama City. This is much more ‘real-life’ than the old quarter and is basically a shopping strip that a lot of Panamanians do there day-to-day shopping on. We didn’t see anywhere we fancied for lunch so instead opted for a cheap lunch of pasta sauce leftovers back to the hotel. We found and bought some gluten-free pasta in the old quarter for dinner but we decided to have this for lunch instead.
Once lunch was over I set off in search of a ‘casa de cambio’ and a post office. A clerk at a bank had shown me the way to an area with apparently places to change foreign currency but in getting there I had trouble locating such a place. I did run into a post office though so got one task out of the way. It took about an hour of queuing in various money changers and wire-transfer shops and being told to try somewhere else before someone actually gave me the location of a genuine currency exchange office. I did get very good at asking the question “puedo cambiar dinero de otros paises aquí?” (can i change money from other countries here?) though. Once at the actual money changers office the rates they offered me were about US$100 shy of what the money was worth so I walked away rather frustrated. I will keep hold of that cash until I can change it with a decent rate, maybe back in the UK! I met Kirsty back at the hotel and we lazed around for a few hours before heading out for a nice dinner at a place called ‘El Caribe’. As the name suggests it was all Caribbean food and I had jerk pork chops whilst Kirsty had a grilled fish (corvina). We then headed back to the hotel for our last night in relative luxury before heading to Colombia. We can’t afford this type of place in Cartagena which is proving to be an expensive accommodation destination. We will be flying out of Panama and Central America at 11:21am tomorrow morning. We have really enjoyed Central America and hope to be back some day to get to the parts we didn’t get to this time, next time hopefully with more Spanish. For now though, bring on South America.