Central America #1: It all began in Panama City

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At the old Panama Canal

Once the travel bug gets you, it’s difficult to shake off. I’d done a lot of traveling, especially around South America, but had never actually backpacked. I’d generally been living in one particular country at a time, attempting to immerse myself in local culture, and using where I lived as a base for getting know the region, for example traveling to Chile and Uruguay from Argentina, and to Venezuela from Colombia.

In fact, for the most part, I’d snubbed the whole hostel scene because I was in search of a so-called authentic experience, and was perhaps overly obsessed with mixing with the locals as opposed to knocking elbows with fellow foreigners. So I was a little apprehensive about doing a backpacking tour, albeit with a small bag that could be termed hand luggage, and wondered if it was really for me. Absurdly, I even consulted forums to see what the maximum age for hostel-jumping was, even at the tender age of 27.

There would be no need for such concerns.

I booked a multi-trip ticket into Panama City and out of Guatemala City five weeks later, hoping to see as much as I could of the six countries on the route. It was definitely going to be what I would later call ‘express tourism’.

Panama City was the first stop and I arrived late evening at the airport, so had to take a taxi to get me to the hostel I’d booked for a couple of nights. Forum consultation told me it’d cost me 30 dollars for the trip to downtown, so naturally, after a little haggling, I paid 25. Bartering was to be a running feature of my trip through Central America.

I arrived at Siriri hostel (16 USD per night in a dorm) at about 9.30pm and quickly checked in. After dumping my stuff and having a well-needed shower, I put my social hat on and got to mingling within the hostel. I ended up talking to a Colombian guy who thought I was Mexican and soundly beat him at pool despite a tipless cue. We had a good chat about all things Colombian but soon I headed off to bed via a chat with a couple of Swiss who were probably older than me. We had the classic traveler conversation about where we were from, where we were traveling to and from and exchanged tips for what to do on the trip. Those worries about mixing with the backpacking type were unfounded, as was thinking I was too old for this!

The obvious attraction in Panama is the canal, an engineering conundrum which connects the Pacific and Atlantic. The other must-see in the city is the Casco Viejo, the colonial-looking old part of the city. I asked for directions at reception and off I popped via public transport to the famous waterway. You can jump on any bus saying Corredor Sur that sets off from around Hard Rock Café and MultiCentro, as they all apparently stop at Allbrook bus terminal/mall. I barely waited any time, and boarded a funky old chicken bus booming out reggaeton music, quickly checking whether it went to my intended destination. The driver handed me a green poker chip, which left me a little nonplussed, and I took my seat next to a young lady, who I asked to let me know when we were approaching Allbrook. She assured me that there was no way to get lost, as the terminal was big and everyone got off there anyway. I hoped she was right, as past experiences had taught me that the phrase  ‘No hay perdida’ doesn’t always ring true.

As it happened, we soon pulled into the terminal and I casually handed the driver a one-dollar note, not knowing how much the journey was, but knowing through observing others that it was only a matter of coins. He duly gave me 50 cents change and pointed arbitrarily ahead when I asked him where to catch the bus to the canal. Another running theme of my trip. So many running themes. Further pointing this way, that way, up, down, after and before eventually deposited me at the correct departure point, where I had to purchase a metro ticket (in Panama City you have to pay a tariff of about 10 cents every time you board a bus for use of the terminal, so travellers beware!) for a bus setting off in about half an hour. To kill time, I opted to have a snack consisting of an empanada, cake and fruit juice, which the locals call chicha rather than jugo. After refueling I boarded the bus to Gamboa, which went via Miraflores locks and once again asked a local gentleman to kindly inform me when I should get off. The journey was less than half a dollar.

I was one of few to alight at the canal stop and the only one to make my way on foot to the entrance and to the actual site of the museum and locks. Taking local transport and asking how to get to places saves loads of money in Central America, as opposed to catching shuttles and having tour agencies ferry you around, yet for some reason many tourists seem happy to catch the expensive transport and scrimp in other areas. For reasons of convenience and surety maybe. But I’m always one for living it like a local, which certainly occasions the odd adventurous mishap.

I arrived at the museum and locks (15 USD entrance ) and promptly went upstairs to the viewing point to see how the canal worked. Indeed there are a few dozen plastic seats installed to watch the spectacle, and when ships pass by the crowds throng the terrace and eagerly take pictures and videos of incoming traffic. I must admit that it’s a very slow show and would estimate that passing each boat through the locks takes in the region of an hour, and involves lowering and raising the level of water via flooding and draining. I don’t even have an SD card, so mere photos rather than videos would have to suffice to capture the glory of the canal. Not for the last time I asked a random to take a picture of me with a tourist attraction. I lack selfie skills and therein is one advantage to having a travel buddy with you to take snaps of you.

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Whoah, a boat is coming through

Given I’d paid the hefty entrance fee, I figured I’d watch the whole process to the backdrop of a very jubilant man with a megaphone commentating on the event in English and Spanish and giving lots of interesting information. After a while, his spiel looped back to the point where I had begun to listen, so I headed off to the museum on the ground floor. I’m one of those people who love to read every single word in a museum until my eyes burn, yet there wasn’t an excess of text, so I made it through the exhibition in less than an hour. It tells you about the history of the canal, famous people involved and has a few artifacts and blueprint models to peruse. I learned that the USA actually owned the territory immediately surrounding the Canal until the recent millennium and that it had actually been started by the French until they ran out of money and were sick of being bitten by mosquitoes.

Having sucked all the information I could out of the locks and museum, I exited and caught a Metrobus back to Allbrook after about forty minutes waiting at the stop, paying 35 cents using the metro card I’d acquired earlier in the day. From Allbrook Terminal, to get to Casco Viejo, you could walk, but I took the train metro to the next stop, 5 de Mayo, from where the old part of the city was within walkable distance. I’d been told to head towards Mercado de Mariscos, the seafood market, in order to access Casco Viejo on foot. Via directions from three people, and after crossing and re-crossing pretty busy roads with no traffic lights I eventually found my way. In doing so I passed through quite an ugly part of the city centre with a few dodgy characters dotted around, and for the first time ever I saw barber shops set up in stalls in the middle of the pavement. Shame I’d just had my own mop chopped, so I missed out on an alfresco haircut.

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A not so pretty building

The seafood market smelled much as it should do, and I passed it on my way to the Old City. To be fair, it was the archetypal Spanish colonial architecture oft encountered in Latin America, what with narrow cobbled streets, brightly coloured low-rise buildings and a plethora of churches and squares. But still worth it to walk around and look for somewhere to lunch. I ignored the fast food joints and smart restaurants aimed at the tourist and after wandering for quite a while came across a dingy, probably-not-hygienic place with no name where lunch would cost me a grand total of 4 USD. The fact a handful of locals were there encouraged me somewhat, and I opted for casseroled meat with rice and vegetables, which went down well enough.

As I was finishing, the elderly owner of the restaurant parked himself at my table and we had a rather long chat about him, me, Panama, England and football. He told me where I should visit in the country and also raved about the film Marley and Me, something he repeatedly described as marvelous. I politely nodded in accordance. I left thirty minutes of chin-wagging later quite satisfied that I’d been able to chat to a ‘real’ Panamanian and learn a little from the locals.

I decided to walk back to the hostel along the Cinta Costera, or the coastal road, conveniently pedestrianised and lined with palm trees swaying in the light wind either side. Downtown Panama City has a look of Miami to it due to a decent amount of skyscrapers over the coast, but there isn’t really any beach of sorts, rather a cycle path cum walkway. A while later and after wandering around in circles for about an hour in close vicinity to the hostel, I finally found it.

Not soon after I got chatting to a forty-something guy from the US who had estranged children in Panama, was very secretive about his job and made frequent comments about the London stock exchange which suggested he made a living out of playing the markets. At first our chat was alright, but after a few beers he became something of an idiot and started to piss off a lot of other people staying in the hostel just for his own giggles. So as not to be associated with him, I slowly edged my way into another conversation, but he kept coming at me with beers. To avoid awkwardness and potential conflict he might cause with other guests I went off to bed, but not before having a riveting chat with a group of Venezuelans about Chavez, Maduro and the extremely complicated political and economical situation in their country. The conflictive guy from the US noisily rocked up in bed in the early hours of the morning and I wondered how many people he had gone on to offend.

In summary, Panama City isn’t the most exhilarating place in the Americas, and if you make the most of your time, a day is plenty enough to see the main sites of the city. On a personal level I was content with how things had gone, interacting with hostelgoers, foreigners and locals alike, and my enthusiasm for the rest of the trip had certainly been heightened.

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