Days 38-39 – Panama City

Hello, all. I’m writing this post from back home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’s been over a week since my last post. Sorry for the delay. I wanted to fully enjoy the last leg of my trip without having to worry about posting material. But, now I’m home and ready to share with you all  the last portion of my journey. The final two destinations of my trip were Panama City, Panama and Toronto, Canada. I’m going to write about each city separately, so Panama City will have its own post and so will Toronto.


I landed in Panama City on Monday, June 17th around 11 AM. I immaturely took a private taxi to my hostel at which I had not yet booked a room. I know. I became a very lackadaisical traveler towards the end of my trip. The taxi was quite expensive and had I done more research prior to landing, I would have known that the local buses ran a route from the airport to the bus station near where I was staying. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know the way a foreign city works before arriving. I’m going to digress slightly here: I think traveling using local transportation is especially difficult for most places in Central America because addresses work differently down there than back in the States. More specifically, addresses are not necessarily addresses–they are just directions from some specified landmark. For instance, in Costa Rica, the address of my hostel was “100 meters east of Sodia Tapia.” It requires you to know exactly where the landmark is–in this case a restaurant–to find your destination. That’s the way most addresses function down there. Moreover, relating specifically to bus routes, most stops are just random huts along various streets. This means it takes time and conversation with locals to fully understand how to get around using municipal buses. And, most cities are divided into different zones which are typically not revealed on mobile map apps. Thus, for most of my trip, I avoided these compounding frustrations by simply taking taxis in new places until I confidently knew the whereabouts of cities. If you’re traveling on a strict budget, this is undoubtedly NOT the most economical way to transport.  You may be better off feeling things out and immersing yourself in complexity using the local transportation. I actually think there is quite a bit of excitement in the uncertainty.

Anyways, in the private taxi to my hostel I passed a downtown square where thousands of Panamanians were watching the Panama vs. Belgium match of the World Cup. It was quite a spectacular sight to see. I arrived at the beginning of the second half, so the game was just getting started again. My taxi driver was listening to it on the radio amidst making small talk with me. Several times he burst out into a mixture of Spanish cuss words that I actually understood quite well. I arrived to Hostel Siriri around the 65th minute of the game. I couldn’t check in until 1PM, so I had roughly one hour to kill. Initially, I sat down and watch the match. I quickly got bored because Panama was down 2-0 and I was starving. I strolled around the block to find some food and stumbled across a place called La Luncheria. They only served one meal per day that was set-up buffet style. I grabbed a meal of rice, lentils, chicken, and fried plantains to finish watching the game. Panama ended up losing 3-0, but it was still an awesome experience to watch the game with locals. They were laughing, yelling, and cussing about Panama’s poor performance till the very end.  I walked back to the hostel and bought a dorm bed for a night. I ended up napping until almost 7 PM. It was so nice to just relax and enjoy having air conditioning again. It’s a luxury in Central America to have it.

I was starving again after I woke up from my sleep. I walked around downtown Panama for about a half hour until I settled upon a small hole in the wall called Orale. Orale was an authentic Mexican restaurant booming Spanish music and boasting extreme hospitality from the workers. I couldn’t quite understand the waitress because she spoke so rapidly, but I ended up ordering these fried chicken tostados topped with picante salsa, verde salsa, lettuce, tomato, and avocado. It was delicious but way too expensive once I got the bill. I can’t quite remember the exact price since it’s been so long since I was there. I think it was right around $15 USD for the meal though. That’s extremely pricey for Central America. Probably one of the most expensive meals of my entire trip. I suppose part of the reason you pay so much there is because of the fantastic service. They even opened the door for you upon arrival and exit. I returned from the restaurant with a number of questions on how to get to the Panama Canal the next day. I saw a sign for a guided tour of the historic site for about $25 USD. I decided against the tour because $25 seemed quite expensive and most tours like so are overly touristy. I conversed with one of the local hostel workers who spoke zero English. After about ten minutes, I was wholly educated on which bus routes to use and when to make it to the Panama Canal.

I set out the next morning around 9AM with a stomach full of free pancakes and coffee. To reach the Panama Canal, I had to take two different buses from two different stations. The first bus stop was about a half hour walk from the hostel. I passed heaps of restaurants and hole-in-the-wall street shops. I waited about twenty minutes at the stop for a bus flashing “Albrook” at its destination. Albrook was a massive bus terminal right outside the airport I flew into the day before. Finally, a bus arrived with the correct stop and I boarded. Coming just from Costa Rica, I expected to be able to simply pay the fare with change and proceed. However, I could not have been more wrong. Panama’s buses use a prepaid card-style admission. The system is actually pretty neat–you just hold the card up to a screen and it both reads and charges your pass. I didn’t have a pass, clearly. Luckily, every station has a municipal worker with a master card specifically for these situations. I would imagine that if locals forget their cards they probably are not granted access to the buses. However, since I was a tourist, I think the worker reluctantly paid my fare. I was relieved and grateful that they let me on the bus.

I arrived a Albrook station shortly after. The terminal was massive–much, much larger that the shopping mall-style station I visited in Costa Rica. This one had dozens of buses leaving from two different floors. I departed from the bus determined to find the prepaid pass booth. I asked two local police officers who pointed me in the right direction. There was a short line, so I asked some locals to confirm I was in the right place. I discovered that they prefer people prove identification using their passports. I, surprise surprise, didn’t have mine with me. I never liked carrying my passport around with me. Again, I got lucky partly because I was a tourist. They let me use my U.S. driver’s license instead of my passport. The pass itself was called a RapiPass card and it only costed me $3USD to travel directly to the Panama Canal. Access to the Canal costed $14USD for the full day. A few flights of stairs later and I was at the museum center. I walked in and was greeted by a host of friendly workers who appreciated my attempts at responding in Spanish. To my left was a line of people waiting for the next History of the Panama Canal movie showing. To my right was a four floors of museum exhibits. Directly in front of me were multiple sets of automatic double-doors leading to the Canal itself. The workers informed me the next ship would not be passing through the locks until 1:30PM, so I had almost four hours to explore. They then directed me to proceed towards the English movie theater after experiencing my novice Spanish skills.

The movie was about ten minutes long and explained the entire history of the Canal. I learned so many different things from this short film. For instance, I had no idea that Panama and Colombia were politically joined at one point in history. Initial construction of the Canal began in 1880 when France made a joint commitment with both countries to build a sea-level canal. Only twenty years later, the expedition was abandoned because of rampant diseases, financial losses, and geological challenges. In 1903, Panama declared its independence from Columbia and signed a treaty with the United States only 15 days later to continue the Canal’s development. Over ten years, more than 55,000 men and women participated in the project. Construction was finally completed in 1914. The United States owned the Canal and its surrounding waterways for many years in the future. Eventually, in 1977, Panamanians rioted and the United States set a transfer of ownership to the Panamanian government for the year of 1999. I moved across the hall into the museum after the movie. One of the things that I found most interesting is that for nearly 96 years under U.S. ownership, the Canal was operated under a break-even business model. In 2002, Panama decided to alter this model towards a more sustainable, profitable system. Now, the Canal uses a price differentiation strategy. Panama segments vessels based on size, type, and industry to reap the largest possible revenue. They turned a break-even model into a cash cow, which is fairly impressive. Some of the larger ships pay anywhere from $300,000 to $800,000 to utilize the Canal. The most recent piece of history for the site was the completion of the expansion project. Approved via a national referendum in 2006, Panama expanded the existing Canal locks and added a third set of locks. This was executed to adjust for the growing size of vessels over time.

I exited the museum with roughly two hours left before the next ship would pass. I grabbed a quick bite to eat and found a set of stadium bleachers on the second-floor observation deck. I could faintly make out a ship moving towards the locks in the distance. The vessel actually arrived earlier than the workers expected so I didn’t have to wait as long. The ship was the maximum size permitted to pass through. The locks themselves were just over 30 meters wide, giving the ship only two feet of buffer room on each side. The precision and expertise demonstrated throughout the entire passing process was mind-blowing. The ship looked like it was hitting the walls from the observation deck but it wasn’t. It was pulled and pushed through the canal via six small electric train cars on land next to the waterway. The entire canal system is gravity-operated, with each canal housing over 100 tunnels. It sounded like thunder when tunnels opened to reduce the water level. It was incredible to think that the entire system was brainstormed over a century ago. It takes ships quite a long time to pass through the set of locks. This one, in particular, took roughly 45 minutes to an hour. Everyone was so keen on watching the first ship that no one noticed a second ship passing through a second lock right behind it. This one was much closer to the observation tower, so it was easier to see the water flooding out. It was actually somewhat challenging to see the water draining in-person, so I recorded a time-lapse on my phone. The process was much clearer through the accelerated film. I watched the second ship complete its journey through the locks and left after. I waited for another local bus going back to Albrook terminal. Eventually, one showed up and I hopped on–this time with my RapiPass ready.

We arrived at Albrook station and I literally had no idea which bus to take back. I asked three different locals and figured that if they all told me the same thing, then I should follow. The bus didn’t show up for almost an hour so I became doubtful for a short time. Nonetheless, eventually one arrived. I stepped into it with hope and uncertainty. I got lucky again because it used a route that passed right by my hostel–even closer than the locals thought it would. It was pretty late at that time and my flight out of Panama City was at 1:40PM the next day, so I just wanted to relax. I wanted to decompress and consider the fact that I was going to be leaving Central America the next day. Even though I was headed to Toronto for five days to reunite with my girlfriend, it still felt like a milestone in my journey. I was actually leaving Central America. It didn’t really sink in that my 39-day adventure was coming to an end the next day.

On day 39, I woke up around 8AM ready for the next adventure. I had a rough idea of how to get to the airport using local buses but I asked the hostel workers for confirmation. I had to take the southern highway through Panama City called Corredor Sur. I jumped on an early bus around 9AM to make sure I had enough time for errors. This turned out to be the right call. I stayed on the bus too long and missed my stop for the next bus headed to the airport. Luckily, my bus driver was a kind person. He communicated about four or five other drivers at the station that I had missed my stop and needed to get the airport. He eventually convinced one of the drivers to personally escort me back to the bus stop I had missed. I was literally the only person on the bus. They didn’t make me pay or anything. The genuine kindness exemplified in this situation by these locals was awe-inspiring to me. Without these guys, I would have been forced to pay for a taxi or walk back to the bus stop. I was and still am beyond grateful for people like this that I met all throughout my trip.

I eventually made it to the airport around 11AM. This gave me more than enough time to check in, grab a bite to eat, and watch some of the World Cup. My plane boarded around 1PM. Next, I was off to Toronto, Canada to reunite with my girlfriend, Tamisha, for the first time in 6 weeks.


Countries I Have Met People From:

USA

Mexico

Germany

Belgium

Hungary

Costa Rica

England

Ireland

Switzerland

Belize

Israel

Czech Republic

Australia

South Africa

Guatemala

Nicaragua

Colombia

Taiwan

Japan

Italy

Canada

Austria

Norway

France

The Netherlands

New Zealand

Burkina Faso

Malta

Scotland

Brazil

Finland

Vietnam

Spain

Wales

Panama

Kenya

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