My Copa Airlines flight from Guatemala to Panama was running smoothly. I was happy the flight was on time and that I had been given a window seat which allowed me to spot a school of tiny little ships which had recently just swam through the cities infamous Canal.
I passed through customs like a breeze and spotted my luggage as soon as I arrived at the baggage claim. Panama City was my short two day stop between Guatemala and Ecuador. Rather than just connect I thought I’d extend my stay to explore what many are calling the Miami of Central America.
As soon as I exited with my bag I quickly spotted a few ATM’s. I rushed over and was thinking how lovely it would be to grab a few hundred USD and grab a quick cab to my hostel. I had planned on spending the afternoon and evening enjoying the quaint and crumbling historical neighbourhood of Casco Viejo. I stood in front of two ATM’s: HSBC and Banco Nacionale (clearly the national bank of Panama). I opted to use HSBC, an international bank as it would surely be more reliable and promising. I swiped my bank card, spent the next few seconds passing through the various prompts and finally accepted the three dollar foreign transaction charge. I pressed ok, expected that lovely sound of whirling money being sorted from the casing within… and then my jaw dropped. Instead of making any noise, or spitting out any cash the screen just went back to the original menu. I thought that was so odd.
My heart raced a bit (signs of initial concern) but I decided to try it again in case I had made some sort of error or perhaps the ATM was acting up. Once again I followed through (this time a little more carefully to ensure that I wasn’t being a goof) and to my dismay (and growing anxiety) the screen popped up an alert that read, “You have reached your daily withdrawal amount or your bank is out of service.” My heart crashed onto the floor. I immediately though, “oh my God the ATM has told my bank that I have taken out 500 dollars and is now blocking me from making any other withdrawals.” I stepped away from the HSBC ATM and attempted to try the adjacent local Panama machine. A tall, skinny black man with a grimace on his face simply looked at me and shook his head. He had been watching me the whole time, spoke zero English but from the looks of it had been standing by these ATM’s for some time. I naturally gave him an exasperated look and went ahead to try and withdrawal from the other ATM. I received the same warning message. Totally vexed I threw my hands in the air. A security guard who was standing in front of the bank branch across the hall beckoned me over. I walked through the door, passed a line full of locals and asked the female teller, “does anyone speak English?” She looked at me as if I was crazy. My stress levels were accelerating at this point. I asked if there was a manager I could speak to. A Chilean pilot who spoke broken English translated my dilemma with the bank and advised me that I could only use ATM’s to withdrawal cash on a foreign card. The manager walked over and just shook her head and stared down at the floor.
Next stop was the Tourist Information Desk. Surely this international airport and (cough cough) “Miami of Central America,” would be able to help sort me out. I arrived at the Tourist Information where a smiling little man stood in front of a desk which had three maps of the city and a collection of magnets which read, “I Heart The Panama Canal.” I quickly spoke to him in English explaining my dilemma. I was totally floored when he waved his hands and said, “no English.” Good God, you’d think I had landed in La Paz Bolivia! I slowed down and tried to explain my dilemma. He advised me that none of the taxi’s at the airport would accept credit card for payment. I could only use cash. I told him I only had 10 USD on me and with a rather persistent use of flamboyant hand gestures (verging on tears) told him “I have no way of getting out of this airport!”
I then received a tap on the shoulder. A local black woman wearing a floral dress and leather sandals said, “I have heard everything you have been saying, I believe you, here are a few quarters so you can call your bank and hopefully get your card activated again.” I smiled back at her thanked her profusely and she directed me to the pay phones which were located outside of the terminal on the street in front of the taxi driver que. I arrived at a pay phone that looked as though it had been hand crafted by Alexander Graham Bell. I threw all my coins in the rusty slot, flipped over my card and attempted to call my bank exactly 14 times. I was now transitioning from anxiety to despair. I leaned my hot, humid and dirty forehead against the pay phone and exhaled. I had ten dollars on me, was at an airport where I could not access money and was sleep deprived and starving. I taxi driver looked up at me and motioned me to come inside. I informed him of my plight and he motioned for me to walk up an escalator. The guy sort of irritated me as he was really pushy and although he appeared to be helping me out, he in fact refused to listen to me or even smile. After lugging all of my luggage onto the third floor of the terminal he pointed at two other ATM’s which sat in a corner beside a women’s washroom and water fountain. He motioned for me to take money out and I protested trying to explain that it wouldn’t work. More than anything I wanted to prove to him that I was right (which I was). About ten flight crew were now waiting in line behind me eager to access the ATM. I turned to them (now manic and borderline tear-jerking) asking if any of them knew where I could get money or how I could get to my hostel. None of them spoke English…I slammed my bag into the nearest chair and threw myself into the adjacent seat. I had had it. Panama City was no Miami.
I seriously had no clue what to do. I debated going to the police station (what good would that do?) but then remembered the lovely lady who had given me a few quarters (we will refer to her as my “angel” for the rest of this tale) and rushed downstairs to see if she was still waiting at the arrival gate for her friend. Sure enough she was there. She sort of laughed when she saw me approaching and I informed her of everything that had happened since I last saw her. She grabbed me by the wrist and her high heels hit the pavement as she walked me back to the payphones outside. Over the course of the next 30 minutes she was able to get me in touch with my bank. As soon as I heard a live person on the other end of the phone I blurted out, “I’m at the Panama City airport a total stranger is giving me quarters to make this call and she is going to run out soon please help me I have no money and my bank card isn’t working!” Seeing that I am hearing impaired and I was on the street in front of a ton of traffic the situation was far from ideal. I pressed the phone up to my ear and after answering a few basic security questions I was transferred over to the manager. She asked me questions like, “what is the last cheque you wrote and how much was it for?” as well as, “how many automatic bill payments do you have set up each month?” I was frantic, stressed and totally in awe at the ridiculously specific questions they were asking. As my angel tapped her last quarter into the slot the lady on the other line said, “I am sorry, I understand your situation but for security reasons since you can’t answer these questions I am unable to help you.” Just as she said that to me I saw a woman in the corner of my eye hug the angel to my right (surely this is the woman she had come to the airport to pick up).
I hung up the phone with a blank face. This new woman smiled up at me and was rambling on about how she couldn’t find her friend anywhere. Her friend had quickly informed her as I was getting off the phone of my situation. Her friend had a thick Alabama accent and was about 50 years old. I soon found out that she had flown to Panama City to visit her husband who was in the hospital. Sad face. I explained that I needed to get onto the internet to check my bank account and validate all of the questions thrown at me over the phone. The angel had earlier offered to pay for a cab for me so I could get to my hostel but she worried that I’d get to my hostel unable to access an ATM and with no connection to my bank I may just have the same situation in a different part of the city. She exclaimed, “I am going to drive you to my home, you can use my internet and call your bank. Then we can get you to your hotel.” I didn’t think much (I had no other options) so just shrugged and said ok. She quickly called my hostel to advise them of my situation and to make sure they did not give up my bed. As she was calling her friend turned around to me and looked me straight in the eyes and told me, “I want you to have this ten dollar bill, God has been telling me that I need to give you ten dollars. I don’t have much but I hope this can help.” Her overwhelming generosity made me burst into tears. I had so much stress packed into my eyeballs from the past 3 hours of running about the airport I couldn’t help myself but weep in front of total strangers. She quickly hugged me and told me everything was going to be ok. I repeatedly said “thank you,” and continued to look like a disheveled mess.
In a few moments we hopped in a cab bound for this woman’s house. Her friend sat beside me in the back seat and over the course of the next thirty minutes awkwardly “laid hands on me,” in a profoundly evangelical bout of prayer. I responded to everything she said with a “yes thank you Jesus.” I had no clue what else to say. I gripped my ten dollars (now with a collective twenty) and hoped for the best. The taxi turned off the highway and peering out the window I was soon driving past rural Panama. Dogs roaming the streets without a leash. Tiny little homes with barbed wire fences and weathered paint jobs. Children sitting on the roof of cars with no shoes on their feet.
My situation quickly dawned on me. I was grateful for the “help” I had been receiving but as we pulled up her house (with three fierce barking pit pulls chained to a cement block) it occurred to me that I could end up finding myself locked in her basement or worse dead. I sat in the car freaking out a bit. What had I done? I had no clue where I was. If she was involved in some sort of racket collecting helpless tourists I had taken the bait. I felt very unsafe and really wanted to be back at the airport. I felt stupid, exhausted, and hungry and was trying not to cry (again).
We hopped out of the car. Her half dressed male cousin (all he wore were a pair of boxers with no shoes) slid open the entrance gate. I tried to dodge her rather ferocious dogs and entered the main door which opens up into the families tiny kitchen. I tried to tip toe sideways so that my robust backpack didn’t hit the gas stove. Once inside I could see the kitchen, bedroom and living room from the center of the building. One little girl (about 7 years old) held the hand of another girl (around 4 years old) who was holding a newborn baby. I stared across the living room at a mantel piece covered in plastic flower bouquets and portraits of Jesus. I dropped my bag and started nervously asking where her laptop and phone were. I indicated I was really tired and needed to get to my hostel as soon as possible. She walked me into the bedroom (the home only has one) which had several crammed bunk beds (where the entire family sleeps in one room). We hopped up on one of the beds and with her incredibly slow wifi connection (and a lot of nervous twitching) I was able to get in contact with my bank. I verified all of their questions and was advised that my card was fine. The manager said that every ATM that I had used in the airport (and I tried them all) were not valid on the international Plus banking system. I sat incredibly annoyed that an international airport (cough cough “Miami”) didn’t have one functioning ATM for international travellers.
We hustled out of the bedroom and she introduced me to her mother in the other room who was full of smiles. Her daughter (the angel) briefed her on the situation and told her I now needed to get to my hotel (where there would be many banks as it was the cities tourist hotspot). Her mother exclaimed “why doesn’t he stay here with us!?” Her generosity was appreciated but I politely told her that I really needed to be at my hotel as I wanted to live downtown near the cities attractions and restaurants. She said “ok fine but you should stay here with us.” She ran back into her room. I was left in the living room by myself for about twenty minutes with no clue on what was happening. I stared down at the angels three little girls who did not even wink. Their eyes were transfixed on this strange white man who was standing in their humble living room. They finally returned and I was advised that the taxi driver (who was sleeping on the couch) would drive me to my hotel (and the angel, her mother and her eldest daughter) would be joining me for the ride. I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulders and waved at the woman who we had picked up at the airport. I thanked her for her help and wished her husband a quick recovery. She shouted something evangelical followed by a scripture that I couldn’t hear as the pit bulls in the front yard sounded like they were murdering each other.
Back in the taxi we spent what seemed like an age in rush hour traffic. With a sigh of relief I thanked the entire family in the car for their help. The angel’s mother turned to me and told me that she was the leader of an evangelical church. She said, “the Lord brings the distressed to my door and I give them what they need. The Lord provides for us all.” I intended on helping pay for the cab (especially since they were taking the time out of their day to journey to my hotel with me). The angel’s mother quickly yammered in Spanish to her daughter in the front seat and I was advised that my money was no good here. The smiling woman beside me who held her granddaughter on her lap looked over at me and said “pay it forward and we will make sure you get to your hotel safely.” My jaw dropped and once again I wept at the generosity of this humble family. They offered me so much when I had nothing. I couldn’t’ help but stare out of my window for the remainder of the trip (in silence) and see all of the corny plastic Christmas decorations that adorned the storefronts of the cities shopping malls and small businesses. I had never felt the “Christmas spirit” more than over the course of the past few dubious hours. I finally arrived at my hostel in Casco Viejo. I grabbed my luggage, exchanged business cards with my angel and gave her a hug. I wished the family a Merry Christmas and firmly told them to email me as I wanted to be in touch with them.
I would be spending the next two nights at the cities most famous hostel, Luna’s Castle. I walked up the steps of this colonial mansion and arrived at the reception desk which was a chaotic mess. One stressed out staff member was trying to deal with a line up of about ten exhausted travelers. I told her quickly who I was. She smiled up at me and motioned for me to sit down and wait while she dealt with everyone else in line. About an hour later (I just sat silently void of emotion and energy) she gave me my keys, wrote on a little local map where the ATM’s were located and pointed to the bathrooms. I joked with her that the idea of a hot shower sounded like heaven.
After a quick shower I ran out into the streets in search of the closets ATM machines which were conveniently located directly beside the Police Station. Panama City after dark is no place to be walking alone but I was assured that since I was in the tourist hood I’d be fine as the streets are patrolled 24/7 by cops. I arrived at the ATM and low and behold I was greeted by a blue Banco Nationale ATM. I moaned so loud that the dog sitting on the curb jumped up and looked at me as if I was crazy. I had no faith that this ATM would work but the two Argentinean tourists in front of me both seemed to be able to take out cash so I was hopeful. After tapping the screen a few times I pressed accept and closed my eyes. My fingers crossed, and in a few moments I heard the glorious sound of crisp USD bills whirling within. I literally jumped up and down and felt as though I had won the loterry. I took a deep breath, stuffed the money in my wallet and headed back to my hostel. On my way I passed the boardwalk which offers beautiful views of the city. The downtown core twinkled over the harbour’s bobbing fishing boats. I stared up at the stars in the sky and full moon which cast a shadow in front of my feet. I barely survived my first few hours in Panama.
I walked back to my hostel. Plopped myself on my bed and opened up my Lonely Planet…Lying in the centre of Panama’s southern coast, the country’s capital is a modern, bustling city, thanks to the enormous trade and commerce that passes through each year. The city has a long and varied history, and the site was an important stop on the “Gold trail” of treasures being shipped from the Spanish colonies in the Americas back to the motherland. For this reason, the early settlement was attacked numerous times and at one time the city was burned to the ground.
After the fire, the city was relocated 8 km away, on a small peninsula planners felt would be easier to defend. This area is now known as the “Casco Viejo,” and is surrounded by sea on 3 sides and a moat on the fourth, making it a very strategic location. The area is beautiful, and great for a glimpse into history with its narrow cobblestone streets and colonial-style buildings. My hostel was located smack dab in the middle of this heritage neighbourhood.
I checked my restaurant list and decided even though I was feeling a bit mopey and just wanted to cuddle into a ball on my bed I should actually take advantage of my first night in Panama as my afternoon had been a waste. I was keen to visit the cities famous Las Tinajas restaurant which features traditional Panamanian fare as well as a live folk dance show (win win)! I had to find a victim (aka someone to join me for dinner) so sat beside an Australian girl knitting in the common room and in a few moments we were off in a cab together.
We ordered Sancocho Panameno (a chicken country soup), Pastel de Yuca (Yuca country pie enriched with chicken, corn, capers and raisons) and a Mixed Plate of local specialties (fried pork rinds, country corn timbal, chorizo, Yuca croquet, marinated cheese). The soup was really great but all and all I wasn’t a huge fan of the cuisine. Heavy on the starch, relatively flavorless unless you throw hot sauce all over your food and everything on the plate was yellow (in desperate need of a colour wheel). At 9pm the main dining room was a buzz with a local folk band and beautiful dancers dressed in traditional folk costumes! Was the happiest moment of my day! After the show we returned to Luna’s Castle and enjoyed a 50 cent “Happy Hour” beer at the bar downstairs. My eyes immediately got heavy and I passed out promptly at 10:30pm.
The following morning I walked about the Casco Viejo neighbourhood. The entire “hood” is under reconstruction as the local government has really just recently set its sites on revitelizing the historic quarter for tourism. I would say that 70% of the buildings and streets here are totally under construction (much like the rest of the downtown with its sky scrapers). I spent an hour or two snaking my way through back alleys (trying not to fall into storm drains) and visiting the cathedral. I then headed to the boardwalk and walked 45 minutes along the water (past the fish market) downtown for lunch. The boardwalk had been set up with a Christmas display (which glows at night). The display made me chuckle as it featured several countries (almost like a mini Epcot Centre) as well as an entire space dedicated to Coca Cola (with polar bears and Christmas Tree to boot)!
The walk was a bit longer than I had anticipated (my feet were sore and at 32 degrees that day, and humid I might add I was a bit tuckered out). I had done plenty of research on the top restaurants in the city and was excited to be stopping by Market in the ritzy Calle Uruguay neighbourhood. I was the first person to arrive at the restaurant (just before a massive storm hit). This French Bistro is a huge hit with wealthy locals (several super models and business men arrived after I had sat down for my meal). The well heeled come here to see and be seen and enjoy well crafted cocktails and fine food. I really loved the interior design of the space. I gave my business card to the manager who ensured I had an exemplary dining experience. I enjoyed an incredibly strong margarita, Louisiana cob salad, bacon mac and cheese and a slice of key lime pie (which I suspect was actually their New York Cheesecake but my server spoke zero English so I just went ahead and devoured it).
After the rain had let up a bit I took a taxi back to my hostel where I spent the next few hours relaxing. Once my appetite had hit me in the gut once more I walked around my neighborhood in search of a good meal. I happened upon La Forcehetta a tiny little Italian Ristorante overlooking the Cathedral. I was given a little plate of matchstick bread and ordered a bowl of soup (chickpea cream with rosemary shrimp) and a carbonara pizza (with poached egg, onion and bacon).
The following morning I checked out of my hostel and left my bags in the storage closet. I met an adorable Australian couple who were sitting beside a Israeli woman who was one of the most annoying woman I ever met (but we’ll get to that later). I had told them that I was going to the Canal for the afternoon as it was my last day in the city (I would be flying to Quito after 9pm). The Aussie’s said they’d love to share a cab with me and the Israeli invited herself as well.
Tourists visit the Canal (and it’s little museum) at the Miraflores Locks just 20 minutes drive outside of the city. The Canal is a fabulous example of modern engineering and is considered to be one of the engineering wonders of the world. Many had attempted to join the two oceans at this point via a canal. The first to try were the French, but they encountered endless trials and catastrophes, in the end claiming the lives of 22,000 people—and the canal was abandoned. The United States eventually completed the canal in 1914, and today it extends 80 km across the country. Gigantic lock systems raise and lower the water levels, allowing ships to go from lake to lake (the canal is made up of entirely fresh water), and eventually from ocean to ocean. According to statistics, more than 12,000 ocean-going vessels pass through it a year–over 30 a day!
Visiting the Panama Canal when in the city is a compulsory day trip much like Niagara Falls is for those that visit Toronto. I knew from my research that the best time to visit was after lunch in the afternoon when most of the ships pass through the locks. Once we arrived we passed through the museum which showcased how the canal was made and discussed how the canal is currently undergoing an expansion program. I was eager to grab a seat at the restaurant. I envisioned drinking over priced beer (for here 2 dollars would have been outrageous so really the price was right) throughout the afternoon slowly getting drunk in the afternoon sun on a patio overlooking the canal. Raising my glass to each ship as it passed through to the other side of the ocean.
My hopes for the afternoon were soon quashed when we were advised that we needed a reservation (what was this New York? We were at a flipping Canal for goodness sakes!) We were advised that if we wanted to eat we’d have to wait and pay $40 dollars for their buffet (which looked mediocre). I was rather irrirated at their customer service skills (this is the countries top tourist attraction). We were told to go downstairs where there was a snack bar. I was hopeful we could get some delicious cheap eats, a few bottles of beer…all was going to be ok! Right?
Not so. We were all starving and arrived at the snack bar to a disappointing and overpriced menu. We soon found out that pretty much everything on the menu (other than hot dogs) was entirely sold out (it was 1pm). There was no way in hell I was going to eat a hot dog at the Panama Canal. The woman behind the counter scowled at us as we each went through the menu attempting to order such delights as mixed nuts, cheese empanadas or churros. At the mention of each item she frowned and shook her head. I almost rung her neck I was so peeved! How can the countries top tourist attraction have zero food at 1pm for a willing and paying guest! Worse was the fact that the staff were not bilingual and had the customer service skills of a piece of string dangling in a stale breeze. I ended up buying a can of orange Fanta and a tiny bag of onion flavored chips. We overhead an announcement that the next ship would not be passing through the canal for another 90 minutes. With not much to do we visited the theater where we enjoyed a well put together 20 minute video which showcases the history of the canal as well as how the locks work. Once back outside we walked up to a rather hilarious space where blue coloured bleachers face the locks. People sit for hours in the heat on these chairs just waiting for a ships to pass through. The 90 minutes message became over two hours of standing, waiting for a boat to putter past us. We had been at the locks for several hours now and had not yet “seen any action.” The Aussie’s were pouting and keen to go back but I was determined to actually see the canal in action. Finally a ship off into the distance started to move its way towards us at a snails pace. The crowd screamed and clapped (totally ridiculous you’d think they had seen a miracle). As the ship started to move towards the locks other tourists walked out onto the platform. For the next 30 minutes as the ship slowly entered the lock the viewing deck became a “fight for your space” battlefield. I even had a 70 year old plus gentleman push me to get a picture. I pushed him right back and scowled. Waiting another hour I decided to get creative and started taking pictures of tourists at the canal who had fallen asleep sitting up, were lying down passed out or just looked bored and exhausted. Funny enough I was standing across from a couple who made out while waiting for the boat. Seriously odd romantic space to enjoy a date.
The little Israeli girl who joined us spent the entire afternoon constantly talking, oblivious to the fact that no one was listening or responding to her conversation. She asked a million questions “how do the locks work, what is that smoke coming off the ship, how do they drop the anchor, why are people walking around on that bridge, what country do you think that ship is from…”on and on, in 32 degree humid heat. Her consistent banter and the fact that I was starving, standing in a massive pushy crowd and waiting several hours to see a boat pass through a lock had me seriously irritable. Finally two ships passed through eh locks simultaneously. A large barge as well as a cruise ship. The local tourists at the locks cheered and waved at the passengers on the cruise ship. The entire Panama Canal experience was seriously underwhelming so if you do visit ensure to book a reservation at the restaurant so you can enjoy a nice view from their deck and drink yourself silly so that all that waiting doesn’t seem so painful.
Finished up at the Canal we grabbed a taxi back to the hostel, I hoisted my bags on my back and hopped in another taxi to the airport (memories of this airport were profoundly negative so I did a few prayers on my way). Once at the airport I checked into my Copa flight to Quito and passed through customs like a breeze. I had barely eaten all day so was ever so pleased that their food court was filled with Americana treats. I had never eaten at Carls Jr (apparently a popular burger chain in the States). I ordered a burger with onion rings and bacon as well as fries and a large Coke. Feeling as though I had not done enough damage to my body I also ordered a large walnut cinnamon bun at the Cinnabon just outside of my departure gate.
Panama had been a whirl wind tour. My arrival had been one of the most negative, exhausting and painful travle experiences I have had to date. The city is undergoing a massive face life. I can see in a few years once all of the sky scrapers have been completed and once the old quarter has been revitalized that Panama City could be an excellent city to enjoy a flight connection layover. The cities taxi drivers drove me nuts (constantly overcharging me for cabs forcing me to flip them the bird). The city isn’t exactly safe so I was always having to be on my guard to ensure that I didn’t end up without a wallet. With a lack of cultural attractions (notable museums or art galleries) and with a rather medicore dining scene (Market was one of the top ranked in the city and I wouldn’t rave about it back home) and a Canal that was overwhelmingly underwhelming I won’t be coming back anytime soon.
Thankfully my final memory in Panama would be a positive one. Sitting in my seat waiting for the flight to taxi to take off the flight attendant announced that alcohol was complimentary on my 2 hour flight to Quito. Over the course of the next 48 hours I washed away all of my worries with gin and tonics and rum and cokes. Cheers to that, I was Ecuador bound!