Adapting to my new circumstances as a work-constricted traveler has presented an entirely new set of considerations in travel planning. Chief among these is maximizing my allotted vacation time to take as many trips as possible in a given year, while also being sure to spread them out to avoid ending up short come Christmas time. My new employer offers most of the standard holidays, and so having missed out on traveling over Martin Luther King Day, I knew I could not let President’s Day similarly go to waste.
In searching for a destination, I tried all sorts of domestic routes first, thinking of friends and family that I wanted to visit, but ultimately there were no fares that checked off enough boxes for me (distance/price, Delta partner, schedule, etc.) and so I decided to let the fates decide. For those of you not already in the know, Google Flights is an excellent resource for the flexible/indecisive traveler. I plugged in my dates, filtered to SkyTeam only (gotta chase that status) and pulled up the map of the world, with prices dotted on cities around the globe! For less than it would have cost me to get to San Francisco, I was able to book a round-trip to Panama City (Panama). It’s not a destination I’d thought much about, but the price was decent and I’d never been there. Good enough for me! I spent one of my precious vacation days to take off Friday the 17th and flew down on a redeye Thursday night. The fare required a 4 hour layover in Mexico City, which ended up being not overly long, considering I had to clear Mexican customs, then wait in another check-in line (the second leg of my flight was operated by a different airline) and then go though security again. When all was said and done, I was on the ground and ready to go by mid-afternoon on Friday. I bought a SIM card in the baggage claim area and headed out! Aside from minting some of their own small coins, Panama uses the US dollar as its currency, so there was no need to change money or figure out rates, a nice bonus on such a short trip.
I had done some research on local public transit, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to figure it all out for such a short trip and used UberX instead. The app offered an “UberEnglish” option for an extra dollar, but I decided to take my chances. It wasn’t totally seamless (my first driver canceled after I’d waited 15 minutes and the second I canceled after waiting another 30 with no sign of him) but I finally got someone to pick me up and made it to my Air BnB. My host wasn’t able to meet me, but had left the keys with the doorman. I knew if I sat down I’d fall asleep, so I dropped my stuff and headed right back out again.
One of the newer attractions in Panama City is the Cinta Costera, a major waterfront project that recently put in miles of oceanfront biking and jogging trails and park areas. It was a lovely stroll and gave great views of the city skyline. My Uber driver told me that much of the development in the city is really just a front for money laundering, but who knows?
After a quick swing back by the apartment to meet Rian, my Irish AirBnb host (and Luna, his charming puppy), I headed out for dinner at Brew Stop, where I got to try some nice local craft beers (I recommend the Sir Francis by Casa Bruja) and some tasty fish tacos. I was still pretty wiped from the overnight flight, so I picked up a few things for breakfasts and snacks and went to bed early.
The next day I got picked up bright and early by Panama Divers. I had looked in to most of the dive outfits in the area and ultimately, they were the only SCUBA shop that was willing to take a booking for a single diver, but honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience! They were able to provide round-trip transportation from Panama City over to the dive site, full gear rental and the services of a dive master for 2 tank dives for a grand total of $200, which is very reasonable. It was myself and one other girl – Charlotte, who has a very glamorous career as a cabin stewardess on a private 80 foot sailboat – and the owner of the dive shop, Clay, was also our chauffeur. He had a lot of stories to share and regaled us with all sorts of tales on the 90-ish minute trip across the isthmus from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean shore. The dive shop operates out of a little hotel on the water called Octopus Garden, near Portobelo. They’d had a pretty bad storm come through not long before, so the place was a bit of a shambles (and allegedly, the “nice” dive boat had sunk in the storm) so it had the feel of a shoestring operation, but we had all the things we needed for a great day on the water. Both Charlotte and I were a little out of practice with diving, but our excellent divemaster, Lito, gave us a quick refresher and off we went! We were joined at the last minute by a Dutch backpacker who was even more out of practice than we were, so he did some snorkeling and studied the PADI manual while Lito, Charlotte and I went down for our first dive at Drake Island. We were told in advance that non-native lion fish are a big ecological problem in the local waters, as they have no natural predators and are decimating many of the local species. Neither Charlotte nor I objected to Lito bringing along his speargun to cull some of the lion fish that we encountered.
Aside from the lion fish (Lito ended up catching 4!) there wasn’t a ton of life, but the water was clear and warm and there was lots of pretty and interesting coral. There’s just something about being down there underwater that I can’t describe, but I love it. For our second dive, we went over to a spot called Buenaventura, he visibility wasn’t quite as good there, but we did get to hang out with a lobster for a bit. The Dutchman was feeling confident enough to join us on the dive, but between the fact that men tend to go through air faster and that he was rusty, the second dive ended up being much shorter. I still had half a tank left when he ran out completely, but the rule is when one is done, all are done, so that was that.
Afterwards, the Dutchman and Carlos from the dive shop were going to go check out a nearby beach, but my winter-white skin had had enough sun for one day, so the boys took off and Clay drove me and Charlotte back over to Panama City.
For dinner that night, I decided to check out a little place on near my apartment that looked out over Avenida Balboa and the waterfront, called Cafe Mar. It was a cute spot and I enjoyed sitting out on the patio where I could people watch. The menu was a little bit random, with one side offering fairly mundane fare and the other side (you had to flip it over and upside down) offering vaguely Japanese food (literally every single roll incorporated cream cheese, for some reason). I took a leap on something called the Uchi pizza (crispy rice cake topped with a schmear and smoked salmon) and five pieces of tuna sashimi. The fish was fantastic, the “pizza” slightly less so, but the atmosphere was great and I got to work on my Spanish a little with my adorable Colombian waiter.
Sunday was my last full day and I had every intention of getting up early to be at the Miraflores Visitor Center of the Panama Canal right when they opened at 9. Turns out my intentions were stronger than my motivations, I ended up sleeping in a little and didn’t manage to arrive until closer to 10. I paid my $15 entrance fee and was immediately hustled into a theater to watch a short film about the history of the Canal. It was fairly interesting, but by the time I got out, the transiting ships were already through the last lock and just waiting for the water levels to rise the rest of the way for them to continue their trip toward the Atlantic (the complete transverse takes 8-10 hours, for those who are interested).
Traffic on the Canal only goes one way at a time, with Pacific to Atlantic crossings in the morning and the reverse in the afternoon. I hung out and watched the last bit and went inside to check out the little museum once the boats were off and away, hoping there would be another set I could watch through the full process. Sadly, there soon came an announcement that there would be no further crossings until 3 pm, so I didn’t get the chance. Shoulda been more of an early bird!
Once I learned there wouldn’t be any more boats, I moved on to the Calz de Amador (Amador Causeway) a long stretch of road that leads out into the bay and has great vantage points for city and harbor views. My tentative plan was to just get dropped somewhere along the way and walk back in, ultimately planning to end up in the old city in time to start my afternoon tour. There were a couple of flaws in this plan.
First, my Uber driver and I weren’t communicating well and she ended up dropping me at the veeeeery far end of the Causeway, which was quite a bit further out than I had wanted to go, but whatcha gonna do? I slapped on some more sunscreen and went on my way. The second flaw in the plan emerged when I plugged the starting point of my tour into Google Maps and it said that, despite being only about 3 miles away, it was somehow going to take me nearly 3 hours to walk there (turns out there’s no direct route by foot, as they might say in New England – you caahn’t get theeahh from heahhh). Thirdly (and worstly) it was coming on high noon and turns out there is virtually no shade to be had anywhere along the path. And it baby, it was hot outside. Lucky for me, I had brought my insulated water bottle, so I could stop for cold sips every now and then. There are a couple of bathrooms (still under construction), so twice I was able to duck under an overhang and get out of the direct sunlight for a second. A couple of times I even found a sturdy looking palm tree and tried to squeeze myself into their meager shade just to get a bit of relief. Did I mention it was really hot?
Anyway, I finally made it to the BioMuseo, a funky Frank Gehry-designed building at the interior end of the Causeway, and there I found a giant banyan tree where I could bask in the shade until I felt my core temp getting back to normal. After refueling with a banana from my backpack and exploring the museum grounds a little, I admitted defeat, walked around to the entrance and got a cab into the old city center, Casco Viejo.
I spent a few minutes little craft market in the Plaza Independencia, then met up with Joey, a Kentuckian ex-pat and founder of PTY Life tours. Longtime readers of this blog might remember that I am a huge advocate for walking tours in foreign cities. When you have a great guide, it will invariably be the highlight of your visit. Joey is up there with the best of the best, and his tour was definitely my favorite part of the whole trip. When booking online, he has you fill out a little questionnaire about what you’re most interested in and he customizes the tour for each small (max 5 ppl) tour that he does. On the tour with me were Dom and Bryan, newlyweds from the UK who had moved down to Panama just days before for Dom’s new job, and a retired couple from Florida (whose names I promptly forgot, sorry!). Joey took us around the rapidly gentrifying Casco Viejo, and then over to “the other side of the tracks” into some more decidedly un-gentrified areas. We tasted chicheme, a local drink made of corn, milk and sugar. Strange, but also delicious! We tried to buy some street meat skewers, but abandoned the effort after waiting nearly 20 minutes for them to finish cooking (when we finally gave up and started walking away, she suddenly claimed they were finished, but we decided not to risk it. Trichinosis is not what I hoped to bring back as a souvenir).
But no matter, as we soon found ourselves at the famous fish market, where Joey brought us to his favorite ceviche stand. I tried the combo style (fish, shrimp, and octopus) and it definitely did not disappoint – particularly at the $3.50 price point.
From there, we headed to one of the new public parks at the southwest end of the Cinta Costera and there the nameless Floridians took their leave. They had just arrived that day and I think over-estimated their stamina.
With the “parents” out of the way, the rest of us got on a public bus to Joey’s neighborhood of San Francisco where he took us to his local dive bar, the Rancho Grande cantina. Our timing was perfect, because just as we arrived, the rain started pouring. So we had no choice but to stay and have a few “manga larga” cervezas!
At $1.75 apiece, it’s the best deal in town. We had a good time chatting and getting to know each other a bit, and then once the rain stopped it was on to dinner and our last stop of the evening.
Though some bit of providence, Joey recently discovered what he calls the best fried fish in the city. The restaurant is called Pescado Frito and is in a neighborhood that is, shall we say, quite a ways away from gentrification. Even the Panamanian Uber driver who dropped us off seemed pretty dubious about turning 4 gringos loose in Curundú, but Joey assured us that he wouldn’t steer us wrong.
Pescado Frito is owned and operated by Danny, who’d spent many years in Brooklyn before returning to his native Panama and starting up his fish stand. He sat with us while we ate and shared some great stories about his life and the neighborhood and all the great things he was seeing in the local community. It was an inspiring narrative, and more importantly, an excellent meal. The whole experience with PTY Life was just fantastic, Joey has really hit on a winning formula for giving you a unique experience that makes you feel like you’ve really gotten under the surface of what can otherwise be a fairly superficial city. If you make it down there, this is a must. Tell your friends!
In the morning after I finished packing and pried myself away from sweet Luna, I had time for a quick coffee and a bite at the local waterfront Coffee Bean, then it was back to the airport to make my journey in reverse. Reflecting on my quick 70-ish hours in Panama, I am so glad I decided to go for it. Another day or two would have been nice, but I didn’t feel cheated by the experience. And now I have friends there, so who wants to come with when I go back?!
Lifetime Country Count: 40
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