Panama City, We Are In You!

Panama City, we are in you! And as Panama is on the North American continent that’s officially it, seven out of seven! Just don’t go inventing any more continents please, science. My bank balance can’t handle it.

We arrived at a very respectable hour on the Sunday but I was the kind of tired where your brain threatens mutiny and absolutely refuses to do essential things such as decision making or speaking or pretty much anything without drooling. Basic motor functions? You won’t be needing those! We’d stayed awake until our first flight at 3.15am which is no mean feat for someone who considers 9pm an appropriate bedtime.

Oh hello, Panama City.

The plane seats were rock hard and didn’t recline, I have trouble sleeping sitting up anyway thanks to jumpy legs so that 3.5 hours of unconsciousness I was hoping to indulge in was definitely a thing that happened to other people. Mainly Tarrant. I don’t know how she does it. I alternated between glaring at her and nodding off for a few minutes at a time until my neck rebelled because 90° is not an angle it enjoys and I woke up. The seats on the second plane out of Bogota were much nicer. Why couldn’t we have had those on the first plane?

I envision lots of chilling in the hostel garden.

Anyway, we’re here, all is well apart from the shock of the fucking cost of everything. It’s difficult going from a cheaper country such as Bolivia to somewhere quite expensive. I mean, we’re not talking Europe expensive. We paid US$6 for a soup and a main, but when you’ve been paying only a couple of dollars for the same thing it does have your bank account weeping in a corner. The Panamanian people so far have been insanely lovely and helpful which makes up for everything. I think we’re going to like it here assuming we don’t actually fucking melt and have to have the bubbling pool of flesh and hair that we’ve become shovelled into a bucket to be flown home.

I’m in love with this geriatric doggo at the hostel. He’s the goodest boi.

After sleeping pretty much the rest of Sunday we touristed pretty hard the rest of our time in the city. You’ll have heard of the Panama Canal I assume. Feat of engineering. Changed the face of shipping. That sort of thing. The Spanish originally came up with the idea 300 years ago but after trying to hack their way through the jungle they decided it couldn’t be done and to be fair, it couldn’t right then.

See that absolute unit of a container ship over there? That won’t fit through the locks we were looking at. They recently spent a lot of money building even bigger locks to accommodate the massive, modern ships and it’s paid off.

The French were the next to have a bash, the chap responsible for the Suez Canal figured if you can build one canal you can build them all. Dear reader, you cannot. They wanted to build a sea level canal all the way from one sea to the other but nine years later 20000 people were dead from mosquito borne diseases, except they didn’t know they were mosquito borne back then and blamed harmful vapours from the jungle. They went bankrupt and fucked off the whole idea.

Though to be fair the ships that come through the older locks aren’t exactly tiny. Humans down there for scale.

It was the Americans that finally nailed it. Panama was part of Colombia back then so firstly they had to help Panama secede from Colombia which they did in 1903, then they set to work. Instead of just slicing through the land they decided to dam the mighty Chagres River and flood the fuck out of the region, because I guess fuck habitats and indigenous land. The Gatun Lake was created and this is pretty much what the ships use to cross Panama, lifted up by a set of locks on one sides and lowered down by a set of locks on the other.

Ready for our IMAX experience.

How do we know all this? Morgan Freeman told us. Included in your ticket price is a 45 minute film in English with Spanish subtitles, in full 3D IMAX glory, narrated by Morgan Freeman. No expense spared, guys. None at all. My very first IMAX experience was right here at the Panama Canal. It was actually really good and even had terrifying 3D mosquitoes loom towards you as Mr Freeman told us all about an American doctor who proved that yellow fever and malaria were carried by the bitey little shits and made them spend two years putting procedures in place to protect the workers. It worked. In 1914 the canal opened but no one noticed because WWI kicked off and everyone was a little preoccupied.

These are the original gates from the early 1900s. They’re in a V shape so they’re kept closed by the water pressure. It’s physically impossible to open them until the water is at the correct level. Water is moved by gravity, there are no pumps here. The doors, despite being massive, are hollow so they can be moved with a small mechanism. It used to be done manually by two men.

So when we rocked up we were told the ships wouldn’t be coming through until after 2pm so we ate some disappointing food from the snack bar and watched the film before stacking up behind all the other humans to get onto the viewing platform. Fuck me, it was busy. We managed to get second row back, up at the top, so we could see the ships coming through and got some photos with some strategic camera waving. There was a solid mass of humans on the viewing platform.

One of the locomotives that steer the boat. The bigger the boat the more locomotives are needed.

We must have stood there for an hour in the blazing heart watching this shit happen but it was so cool. The ships move under their own power but they’re steered by locomotives on the sides with big cables. There’s a specialist pilot on board, the ship captain has to relinquish control to a Panama Canal Pilot and only he talks. The locomotive drivers acknowledge him with bells. So much has to go on just to get these behemoths through the canal.

It takes ten minutes per lock to raise or lower a ship.

Guys, I could geek out about this canal all day but I’ll leave it there. We bussed back to the hostel and had nice, cold showers where I discovered I’d broken out in hives. What the actual, fuck? I thought I was itchy on account of the profuse sweating that is our lives now but nope, I was covered in a red, blotchy rash. I convinced myself it was everything from toxic shock syndrome to meningitis before Dr Google assured me it was hives and could be treated with over the counter antihistamines, which was a nice change because usually it lists the ways in which I’m probably going to die.

Panamá Viejo, with the new city peeking over the ruins of the first city. I could probably shoehorn the word “juxtaposition” in there somewhere.

The next morning I tried not to cry as I handed over US$13.40 for a packet of antihistamines. God I miss Bolivia and its general cheapness. It did the job though and by the time we finished breakfast and bussed to Panamá Viejo I’d stopped trying to flay myself with whatever was to hand. I was still a bit lumpy but it was the itching that bothered me, that’s what kept me awake most of the night, hacking at my own flesh. I’m going to go ahead and blame the heat to be fair, I’m finding as I get older I’m coping with it less and less.

Convento de la Concepción. Partially restored.

Panamá Viejo is the site of the very first European city on the isthmus. It’s mostly gone and is buried under a neighbourhood that the Lonely Planet advises you to visit only in the daytime. They’ve got some pretty cool ruins though and it’s definitely worth a visit. Your entrance fee includes a buggy train thing, I never know what the fuck to call them, which will take you to the best ruins. Or you can walk the 1.1 kilometres to the best ruins via the other ruins and a bit of wildlife spotting.

I love that they just casually have iguanas hanging around.

We chose to walk because we weren’t using all that fluid that subsequently poured out of our faces anyway. I particularly enjoyed the extra sting as the suncream gushed into my eyeballs in a torrent of sweat. We did see some awesome iguanas though, and this huge fuck off bird that looked a bit like a vulture from a distance but nothing like a vulture up close. It’s totally a vulture. It’s a black vulture. They were absolutely majestic.

Black vulture. Probably won’t win any beauty contests but probably doesn’t give a fuck either.

Okay so, the main reason we were visiting a set of ruins and not a thriving suburb of Panama City is because in 1671 Captain Henry Morgan attacked and sacked the city. Yes, the bloke the rum is named after. He was a Welshman who had a penchant for sacking Spanish cities whilst England was at war with Spain. Unfortunately England and Spain had just signed a peace treaty when he annihilated Panama so he did have to do a bit of time in prison before he was released, knighted, then made governor of Jamaica. Even back then rich people got away with whatever the fuck they liked.

You can climb up that tower for some cracking views.

The ruins we saw included the Convento de la Merced which actually escaped complete destruction, possibly because the pirates set up their base there, or maybe because it was so far away from the main square. Whatever the reason, when the city was moved after the sacking they took the intact facade with them. We saw the Convento de San Francisco, Convento de la Concepción which has been somewhat restored, the Convento de los Jesuitas, and of course the tower which you can climb up for some cracking views. We also spent a bit of time in the museum, largely because it’s air conditioned, before we got the buggy/train/whatever back to the entrance.

When they rebuilt Panama City they did so at present day Casco Viejo. It’s actually a really lovely place to walk around. Old, crumbling facades are sandwiched between gorgeous, restored buildings. There are expensive souvenir shops and fancy restaurants, but we were here to see the old facade from the Convento de la Merced. It’s now attached to Basílica Metropolitana Santa María la Antigua. I’ve no idea how they moved it but it’s very cool.

Casco Viejo.
The facade from the original city.

We’d also heard about a legend of a golden alter which a priest hid from the pirates and not only convinced Morgan that it had already been nicked but got him to contribute to the building of the new one. Morgan is reported to have said the priest was more of a pirate than he was. The alter in question is in Iglesia de San José but it turned out it was just a myth. It’s a wooden alter with “low grade gold leaf” that dates from the 1800’s but it’s still worth a look and not least because the church is air conditioned.

The golden alter. Not actually gold at all apparently.

On our last full day in Panama we figured we’d put some nature in our eyeholes because the city has some, like, right there. It only cost a few dollars in an Uber to get to the foot of Cerro Ancón then we strolled up to the top whilst staring intently into the trees. Fortunately there were a group of Americans who were also staring intently and they’d spotted a sloth meandering through the branches. What a good spot! It was so cute, just ambling, indifferent to the hairless apes gawping up at it all slack jawed and gormless.

Hello, little mate!

After we’d gotten our fill of sloth gazing we carried on up the hill. It’s popular with that section of society with a penchant for running up hill so plenty of people jogged on past us. Nutters. There were quite a lot of people at the top, a couple were playing music out loud on their phones which is a fucking pet hate. Mate, get some cheap earbud things, no one wants to hear your shit tunes. We bailed pretty quickly on account of it being a bit too peopley for wildlife spotting, saw a few tiny monkeys on the way down, then Ubered to the Metropolitan Natural Park.

The views of the city are pretty good from Cerro Ancón. People come up here for sunrise but I did hear a guide telling his group that if they were going to do that definitely don’t go alone.

Yeah so I think we should have come here first on account of the fact we saw exactly one tiny deer (no photo as it was in the foliage) and bugger all else. I’d read there was an abundance of wildlife here; sloths, monkeys, toucans. Our Uber driver even warned us that we might get mugged by monkeys for food. Nothing. We didn’t see toucans at Iguazu Falls either and decided they’re probably just a myth. It was a lovely walk though, it wasn’t a wasted couple of hours or anything, it just wasn’t the non-stop animal fiesta I was hoping for. Should have gotten there when it opened before everything got scared away by tinny sounding pop hits blaring from phones.

We did actually see these monkeys sprawled across a tree branch.

I’d known how much the capital had to offer I think we’d have stayed a couple more nights. We’d booked our accommodation at our next stop though so we’d commited to buggering off on the Thursday, bound for the coast for a few days of slowly crisping on a beach. But yeah, Panama City. Not that bad actually. They can use that as their tagline if they want.

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Panama City, Panamá Province, Panama

Stayed at: Hostel Mamallena, Panama City

Hostel Mamallena. Actually really good with a small pool and a nice garden to chill out in. They have a bar from 6pm so they ask you don’t drink your own beer in the garden then but you can still drink it inside. The kitchen is well equipped. Showers are cold but you’ll want that in Panama City. Close to bus routes and minimarkets, about ten minutes walk to a big supermarket. Dorm is air-conditioned between 9pm and 9am. Also there are dogs. If you book through their website they upgrade you to the eight bed dorm for free. We paid US$10 each per night.

Useful shit to know…

How To Get To Miraflores Locks By Bus

  • The C810 takes you straight to Miraflores Locks and drops you at the door.
  • You catch it from Bahia D at Albrook Terminal.
  • This is at the north end of the terminal on the platform closest to the building.
  • It costs 25c but you need a prepaid card which you can buy at Albrook.
  • We bought ours from the airport. Details at the bottom of this post.
  • It cost US$17.22 to get into the visitor centre at Miraflores Locks and this includes the IMAX film.
  • Pro tip: Whilst you enter the cinema at the top you leave at the bottom so if you want to be at the front of the queue sit as far down as you can.
  • You can check the transit schedule, that is the times the ships are going to show up, at the bottom of THIS PAGE.
  • There’s not much point in showing up if there are no ships unless you just really want to look at the empty locks which is fair enough. They’re awesome locks.
  • Panamá Viejo costs US$10 each to get in.
  • This includes the little land train that takes you between the entrance and the tower, the museum, and the tower viewpoint.
  • Lots of buses pass by here, check Google Maps for details.
  • It’s closed on Mondays.
  • The churches in Casco Viejo are free to enter (donations welcome) and you can take photos without a flash.
  • They ask you to take your hat off and not to wear really short shorts.
  • Parque Natural Metropolitano costs US$4 each, cash only.
  • Someone will explain the trails to you and show you where to start.
  • English is spoken.
  • Cerro Ancón is free but they get you to sign in.
  • If you’re Ubering there just have them drop you at Mi Pueblito.

The Metrobus Card, Panama City

  • I think there are three different cards; one just does buses, one does buses and the Metro, the third is a RapidPass and will also permit you to pay your terminal fee at Albrook.
  • We didn’t have to pay the terminal fee when we were catching local buses.
  • We were sold the second kind at Tocumen airport which does buses and the Metro.
  • It cost $5 and came loaded with $2.
  • We bought it from the person selling SIM cards.
  • One card is fine for two people. I’ve read it’s fine for up to six but obviously I’ve not tried this.
  • You can load them up at self service kiosks at Albrook and at Metro stations. I’ve read that some supermarkets do it too but I’m not sure which ones.
  • Most journeys are 25c. I’d read everywhere that buses using the Corredor Sur (this will be written on the front) would charge $1.25 but we were charged 75c for these buses, including from the airport.
  • Maybe this is a temporary thing, I don’t know.
  • You get on at the front of the bus, tap your card and go through the turnstile.
  • I passed the card back to Tarrant then and she tapped herself through.
  • You don’t need to tap off if you’re not going further but if you’re changing buses DO tap off at the back door and you’ll then have 40 minutes to catch another bus for free.
  • If two or more people are using one card only ONE person will get a free transfer. You can’t tap twice when you get off.
  • Bear this in mind when you buy your card. If you’re spending a while in Panama City and will be getting a lot of buses it might be worth getting your own card.
  • Google has loads of bus routes listed, it was very helpful for getting around the city.
  • If you need to check your balance you just need to go HERE and enter the card number.

Getting From Tocumen Airport To Panama City By Bus

  • Before you leave the terminal, buy a Metrobus card from the people selling SIM cards.
  • They cost $5 and come loaded with $2.
  • You can’t add extra money at the airport.
  • Leave the terminal, turn right and follow the signs reading, “Metro & Metro Bus – Sólo con Tarjeta Prepagada – Only with Prepaid Card”. It’s very well signposted until you’re out of the airport.
  • Cross over to bus stop Aeropuerto-I. It’s marked on Maps.ME as such. Coordinates are 9.071431, -79.389017.
  • Not all the buses go to the centre. The first three we asked didn’t.
  • Google suggested we take the S480 which is a Corredor Sur bus. This just means it takes the highway and is a lot faster.
  • We’d read everywhere that this was $1.25 each so we were trying to avoid it as that exceeded our $2, but it turned out to be 75c each.
  • I don’t know if this is a temporary price or what.
  • A German chap didn’t have a card so a lovely chap tapped him on and he paid them the cash.
  • Buses that don’t have “Corredor Sur” on the front are only 25c.

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