Panama City, home to the Panama hat and the Panama Canal. It wasn’t really on our plan of ‘Must See Sights’ in Central America, but it was our gateway through to South America. The two days and nights we spent there gave us enough of a view into yet another big Central American city. For the most part they are the same – plenty of pollution, traffic and rubbish, although they all have their character in being the bustling hub for many locals who are hoping to get ahead in life. The interesting tales about these big cities being full of crime, gangs and mounds of drugs as high as sawdust piles are a little over exaggerated. Without a doubt they have problems under all the above categories. If you keep to the beaten path and don’t wander around waving the latest gadget to come off the Apple manufacturing line then you should be fine. It’s not advisable to get blind drunk and walk the streets at night singing lines from The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work song, smart campaigners will take a taxi and pay the USD $5 max for the ride. The big cities, love ’em or hate ’em they are a big contributor to the wealth and the poverty of the countries, as a tourist you can check them out but never judge the place based on their major city.
Panama – the quick version
As for border crossings…it was hard not to judge Panama based on their utter shambles of an immigration outfit. Cel and I thought we’d take an easy journey to Panama City, an overnight Tica Bus from San Jose (Costa Rica) to Panama City. It was to take 16hrs in total, leaving San Jose at 11pm, arriving in Panama City at 3pm. At 4:30am we reached the Costa Rican exit border, off the bus we got and into the line- that didn’t start moving until 6am when the border actually opened! No idea why they got us there early, but by 7am we’d officially put Costa Rica behind us and just had the simple task of getting into Panama.
We lined up formally around 7:30am, after a roadside coffee stop on our walk between the borders. We’d met up with a Canadian and and Austrian who we got chatting to, it was a good way to pass the time as we waited. We’d be chatting in line for about 30 mins when we realised we hadn’t moved a step, which prompted us to look up the front of the line and see what was going on. Utter chaos, 6 lines merging into two and signs that were meant to indicate which line to be in that were not being utilised by the muppets behind the counters. We gave it another 30 mins, in which time we had managed a ground breaking couple of steps toward the counter. Frustration kicked in and the expletives kicked off, we all took tactical drinks breaks to the supermarket nearby to try and calm the situation. There was no indication that anyone knew what was going on, particularly the lady who was trying to organise the lines. We waited and waited, eventually making the odd step every 10 minutes or so. In the end, we got to the counter around 12pm, handed over our documents and got the stamps we needed, without apology or explanation as to why we’d had to wait for 5 hours to get a stamp. Officially the worst border crossing I’ve ever made!
Eventually we arrived in Panama City at 9pm (6 hrs late), there wasn’t much left to do than to switch the air conditioning on full, hit the shower and then bed!
Our one and only full day in Panama, what to do and see? Well the canal was high on the list – although it didn’t seem like an easy thing to get out to, or very cheap either. You’d think they’d put a few hostels near it (given it’s probably the best sight Panama City has going), but no – $30USD return in a taxi and $15 worth of entrance fees put it on top of the “Highly not likely to actually do” list. A decision was made to check out the historic part of town, which it turns out they’re spending loads of cash renovating. It used to be the place for the high and mighty to be seen, before the city expanded and it became, more or less, a slum. Now it’s well into a re-birth as a colonial, Havana-esq looking, part of the city. We grabbed lunch here, caught sight of the boats lining up to go down the canal, Cel had her gelato fix and we met up again with our Austrian friend from the Panama border.
In the early evening (when the canal was well and truly off the cards) we walked out of the historic quarter and onto the board walk that runs along the edge of Panama City bay. We got to see the city go about it’s after-work life with people running, drinking beer, eating Cerviche (raw fish salad) and, of course, protesting outside the presidents house – something to do with nursing. The views of the city skyline were pretty iconic to be honest, especially with the local fishing boats in the foreground.
After a day of walking around we decided Panama wasn’t all 5 hour queues and inefficient processes. It felt like it was a city on the up, whether it will get there or not, it’s hard to say. The widening of the canal is bound to bring more money to the area and hopefully the right people.
After 5 weeks we had done it, Central America = TICK. We were on our way to Colombia in the morning and pretty excited about it!