Panama City

Trip Start Jun 13, 2006
Trip End Jun 12, 2007

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Alex: We have rush rush rushed to get to Panama in time for our flight, and now we have a week to kill here - typical!

Our first day we spent just doing a few little jobs sorted out. We finally found an open DHL so fingers crossed that is sorted, that said the guy didn't speak English (the first person we have met in Panama who doesn't) and we had an odd conversation via a lady on the phone who did, the end result is we are still unsure if we have done everything we needed to! We also found a South American guide book in English the only issue was it was the footprints one. This is meant to be THE South American guidebook but we have been so unimpressed with the Central America & Mexico one, anyway we hesitated and went away for an hour and when we went back it was gone - it will have to wait to Miami Airport...we hope. Our first impressions haven't been great, we were expecting a truly international city and it just hasn't lived up to the reputation. Our hotel is nice and in a district full of hotels but there are very few restaurants and the ones that are there aren't amazing (the guide book said - Panama City, great food). It just seems to lack a true centre but maybe our opinion will change as we go on.

To break things up (we aren't sure if we can cope with a week in a city) we decide to take a trip up to the Caribbean coast to a place called Portobelo, not sure if it has any relation to the Mushroom or the Market but it means Beautiful Port (good sign) and has a lot of history. Sir Francis Drake died there and was thrown off a cliff in a lead coffin (they are still trying to find it), Captin Morgan (the pirate) attacked the port, it was also the Caribbean port for the overland transport route to the Parcific in pre-canal days so a lot of Inca Gold passed through. We went via bus changing in Sabanitas (Colon has a very bad reputation so we wanted to skip it) which all went very smoothly until we hit Portobelo. What we had missed in the guide book is that there is a "Black Christ" Festival on the 21st October, with a week long lead up. Basically the local church has a Black Christ statue (there is a string of them through Central America) which is supposed to be miraculous and 30,000 people make the pilgrimage to Portobelo, many of them walking from Panama City or Colón dressed in purple velvet (very bad idea given the heat and humidity), anyway long story short not much accommodation. We found somewhere for a night but that was it. Finally we decided to get some food, the local food consisted solely of coconut rice (quite tasty), coleslaw and some form of protein, we tried the first decent looking restaurant that we came to and unfortunately looks were deceiving, I think the fish had been cooking for at least a week! Bad start. Second problem was the village was nice enough but there was not much to do once you had been into the church and seen the Black Christ and the beaches promised in the guidebook were all a taxi drive away. With that and the hotel situation were decided to leave the next morning. We went out for some more coconut rice and this time chicken (far better) in the evening and ended up in the gringo bar talking to some guys who didn't seem to work but just sailed their boat between Portobelo, Columbia and Miami, for partly business partly pleasure...but they were entertaining enough. I think maybe out timing and mood was wrong for Portobelo, the festival would have been fun had we been able to get a room and the coast looked beautiful had we had a little more time (and a car) to explore... oh well.

Back to Panama City and our first trip was to see the canal. We had bumped into Julie and Kieran (from Utila) again so we shared a cab to Miraflores locks. Miraflores are the first 2 locks on the Pacific side, there is then Miraflores lake, another lock and a bit of canal before the artificial Gatún Lake which takes you through to the final 3 locks and then into the Caribbean.
There are 2 sets of 2 locks so one can be used while the other is filling up. They work slightly differently to UK Canal locks in that the 2 lock chambers are connected so the 2nd chamber never empties to sea level and feeds the other lock but other than that and the sheer size of it (we saw a building of a ship just finishing its way through) it looks surprisingly like a regular canal! We only got to see 1 ship complete the full trip as we got there just at the end of the slot (they let boats into the canal in the morning and then off in the afternoon as it takes about a day to do the whole thing) which was a little disappointing but interesting all the same. It was a day for bumping into people as Casey and Paul, who we met in Santa Elena, were also at the locks while we were!

As the canal trip only took the morning we went to Casco Viejo, Panama's old town. It was very pretty and reminded me a lot of Havana Viejo. All the buildings are colonial with lots of little squares and lots of old dilapidated buildings next to newly restored places. It backs on to the Pacific and you can see the queues of ships for the canal as well as all the skyscrapers across the bay which seemed unreal standing somewhere that looks pretty identical to how it did 20 years ago! We also finally got some decent food - we had eaten in OK places but the food hadn't been amazing and certainly not international as the guidebook said, but we got some great curried seafood for about $3 a plate - yum.

We still had 2 more days to kill and not much to do so we took a little walk to the business district, had lunch in a promising but disappointing place (they promised humus on my sandwich and didn't deliver) and generally had a wander. I satisfied my new ice cream craving (very odd for me, but I am blaming it on the heat) and we did a bit of internet stuff. Not very exciting and we still have another day to go....we will be glad to get to Quito!

Dean: Panama City is a nice place but I think you have to be here for a few days before you discover it`s potential. The old town is very beautiful (but in need of some investment). I`d say it was the most "western" of the cities we have visited in Central America. Portobelo was also nice, but if we ever go back I think we will stay just outside the village - there are some dive shops / hotels up and down the coast, and the diving looks good...
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trevnjean on

Great to talk
hi you two, it's all just amazing. Miss you both but love what you are doing and its great to feel part of it. Continue to have fun. Lots of love Mum M

trevnjean on

Panama Canal
Hi, it's hard to believe it's man made, it looks huge. Dad just said a lot of lives were lost building it. I enjoyed our type chat. Lots of love Mum M

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