After four days of being in such a small room in a small town, we were ready to move on from Pedasi. To get from Pedasi to Panama City via bus requires connecting in Las Tablas. The Pedasi bus, a small 15 passenger minivan, leaves from the larger grocery store on the main street. Las Tablas has two bus stations, one serving Chitri on the south side of town and one serving Panama City on the north side of town. Be sure to let the Pedasi bus driver know if heading to Panama City, otherwise the bus may not continue to the north bus station. From Las Tablas to Panama City, we were back on a full size motor coach (not necessary to purchase tickets ahead of time). For some reason that we don’t understand, the inside of the bus was decked out in an Indian motif, as was the bus from Boquete to David. Our suspicion is that Indians are buying up the bus companies. We had to laugh, as a lot of the Indian curtains were stuck into the overhead compartments – maybe the bus drivers don’t appreciate the décor? As we set off, the driver cranked up the Latin music, then about an hour into the trip people started singing along. Fiesta time! You can’t pay for these kind of experiences.
The ride was pretty uneventful with a 20 minute, food and bathroom stop at the bus station in Penonome. Of all the bus stations where we’ve gotten food at so far, this food was the most expensive, and the worst. We’ve been so pleasantly surprised before that it was a disappointment. As we got closer and closer to Panama City, buildings, etc. that we could see from the road became scruffier and scruffier, and there was also more litter.
Arrival in Panama City
The bus arrives at the huge Albrook Bus Terminal, attached to a huge shopping mall. We were able to get an Uber (see below for our tale of four Ubers) to our hotel, the Crown Plaza in El Cangrejo, an upscale neighborhood in Panama City. We haven’t suddenly decided to travel like the 5%, we just got a great deal using IHG points. Our primary goal for this portion of our trip was to visit the Panama Canal.
The Panama City Crowne Plaza is a typical US style business hotel, predictable and nondescript; we could have been at the Crowne Plaza in Des Moines (not sure if there is a Crown Plaza in Des Moines but you get the idea), although when we opened the door to our room we got a little surprise. We were expecting a regular hotel room, but our room had a living room, kitchenette with microwave and full size refrigerator, and bedroom. Here’s where it gets weird: all the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen were empty.
El Cangrejo, Panama City
Over the course of a few days, we wandered around the neighborhood and while it served the purpose of being a safe neighborhood, it was blah. (Ann appreciated some of the older houses more than Ian did.) The highlights were the microbrewery, La Rana Dorada, and a Peruvian seafood restaurant, Asu Mare, our first foray into Peurvian food but not our last.
We had hoped to do a full transit cruise from the Caribbean/Atlantic to the Pacific but discovered that the full transit was only offered two days of the month, and as neither fell during the dates we were going to be in town, we went with the half day cruise. We booked our cruise through Viator Tours and chose a southbound sailing because it was the only one offered on the day we wanted to go. We would be transiting three locks: Pedro Miguel and the two at Miraflores. It wasn’t cheap at $150 per person but after it was over, we both agreed it was well worth it, and for us this was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity. The Panama Canal Authority doesn’t let the tour companies know until 4 pm the night before the tour what time they will be transiting the canal; therefore, the tour company can’t tell their customers. We knew we would have to meet at the Isla Flamenco Marina sometime between 6:30 am and 1 pm (what we found out later meant that on a southbound cruise, it would probably not have been an early morning departure but for a northbound cruise would have definitely been been an early morning departure). We got an email about 5 pm that instructed us to be at the Marina at 11:30 am. From there we were bused to Gamboa (a military base when the US controlled the canal) to meet our boat. After boarding, we waited about 30 minutes while the last northbound ship transited Las Cumbres (the narrowest portion of the canal). Traffic through the canal only goes one direction: feeding from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans into Lake Gatun in the morning and then feeding from Lake Gatun to the oceans in the afternoon. It is not uncommon for large ships to wait 24 hours before being able to go through the canal.
Once underway, we headed for the first locks and found out that we would be sharing the lock with a small sailboat and a large ship called a bulker (or bulk carrier, a ship that can carry a wide variety of cargo that is too large to fit into containers).
In the other lock (there are two locks side by side) would be a Panamax (the largest ships that can pass through the original locks) container ship.
After entering the lock, our boat positioned itself and tied up to the side of the lock, the sailboat tied up to us, and then we waited for about 30 minutes for the bulker ship to arrive. The large ships do not tie up to the side of the locks but are guided by electric vehicles, called mules (the Panama Canal has always used electric vehicles, but some other canals used real mules), that run on tracks. A cable is strung from one mule, through the ship, to the other mule. The mules do not move the ships forward through the locks but keep the ships positioned in the center of the lock.
Water is released from the lock (32000 gallons) and the ships are lowered, which takes about 8 minutes.
After transiting the Pedro Miguel locks, we headed across Lake Miraflores and repeated the same procedure at the first and second Miraflores locks. When the fresh water is released from the lower Miraflores lock, it mixes with the salt water below the lock; all fresh water fish trapped in the water are instantly killed, and the salt water fish below the locks are stunned for 1-2 minutes. So the area below the lock is a favorite gathering place for sea birds and they have a feeding frenzy every time the lock is opened.
Note: As we went through the original locks, we could see the channel sides of the new lock for the Panama Canal expansion, but no ships were transiting that lock while we were going through.
Once through the lock, we proceeded out to the Pacific Ocean and back to the Isla Flamenco Marina.
Our final day in Panama City, we decided to explore Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama City. Casco Viejo is safe to explore on foot but adjacent are two of the worst barrios in Panama City, El Chorrillo and Santa Ana, so it is not recommended to stray from Casco Viejo on foot. We wandered around the old town, admiring the restored buildings, and enjoying a coffee at Bajareque Coffee House owned and supplied by one of the most exclusive coffee fincas in Panama, Hacienda La Esmeralda. One of their coffees (Geisha) sells for $80 a pound. We went with the more pedestrian house blend.
A Tale of Four Ubers
Uber does operate in Panama City and doesn’t seem to have the same animosity with taxi drivers as we had heard about in San Jose, Costa Rica. An interesting option is that for a little extra money, a passenger can request an English speaking driver. We ended up taking four rides, all unique, none English speakers.
- Albrook Bus Terminal to the Crowne Plaza – Our driver was very efficient and courteous. We tried to engage the driver in conversation, but he was having none of it. I think he said about four words on our 15 minute trip.
- Crowne Plaza to Flamenco Marina – Our driver was an immigrant from Venezuela and had been in Panama City for four months. (His family was still in Venezuela.) He was quite friendly and talkative but didn’t know his way around the city very well. His GPS gave him wrong directions and we ended up going across the Bridge of the Americas (luckily it was the weekend). He stopped at the beginning of the bridge, with the traffic behind us honking, and was going to try doing a U-Turn in four lanes of steady traffic, until we convinced him to go to the other side and let the GPS turn him around. Thank goodness we’d left some extra time because we almost didn’t make it to our tour on time.
- Flamenco Marina to Crowne Plaza – A very animated female driver who about 5 minutes into our ride, pulled over to go to the bathroom, leaving the car running. Then as we got close to the hotel in a kind of sketchy neighborhood, she kept asking us what Uber had told us the ride would cost. We weren’t quite getting her meaning and Ian was afraid we were going to be shaken down, possibly by her friends – nothing of the kind occurred. When Ian received the bill from Uber, he figured out what was going on. The receipt was for about one-third of the quoted fare with the ride origin being wrong; we think she had an issue with the Uber app/GPS and it got reset. We emailed Uber and they corrected the fare; the fare was already reasonable, and we didn’t want to short a driver.
- Crowne Plaza to Airport – Our last driver was friendly and efficient with just the right amount of talking. A non-eventful ride.
We are glad that we came to Panama, but it isn’t for us for the following reasons:
- Nine month rainy season. Even on days when it wasn’t raining, we just never felt dry.
- Prices in Panama City were about the same as US. prices. Prices in the rest of the country, while less expensive than Panama City, weren’t the screaming deals that we had been led to believe from the international retirement publications, perhaps 10-20% less than prices in San Ramon, Costa Rica.
- Very large disparity between the haves and the have nots. Some of the barrios through which we rode were quite sad, with the people apparently living in squalor. Much more than we ever saw in Costa Rica.
So given the choice, we would pay the extra money and opt for Costa Rica.
Next up: Medellin, Colombia.
Ian & Ann