Panama - "niu countri"

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Nov 04, 2008

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Where I stayed
Monaco - $18, ensuite, tv sat, a-c, good

Flag of Panama  ,
Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Its always difficult to sleep well when you have to get up to go to the airport at 5 a.m. so we were up at 4.30 without any need of alarm clocks. We just could not face missing the flight!

Before we left our hostel in Quito we did the "burning the travel guide" ritual (sadly without any fire in this ocassion) by which we get rid of the book that we will no longer need. During all the trip we have been ripping pages out and making it was actually quite a sad book at the end with only about 30 pages (mostly maps).

We then proceeded to the "opening of the Central American guidebook" which will assist us during the next weeks of our adventure.

The taxi took us to the airport for $6 so we were there very early (5.30 am for the 7 pm take off), but it was good as the check in, passport control and security procedures were slow as ever. The worse part was after checking in when we discovered that all international travellers (ecuadorian or not) have to pay a $40 per person airport tax which is not included in the fare. That set us back $80 in one blow! Nice one Ecuador!

In any case, the airport was nice and comfortable (no wonder with such taxes), and we took off in time. The flight with COPA airlines was smooth and we made it to Panama City in 1.32 minutes. Not bad for the $300 per person cost of the flight. No Easy Jet around here!

So here we are..."niu countri" as our friend and travel adviser Luis Mambo says with a heavy spanish accident. This is our 9th country since the 14th of December.

Our first impressions of Panama have been very mixed in the first 12 hours we have been here:

First Impression: when we arrived at the airport and started walking off the plane we felt as if we were in a very organised European airport. All clean, lots of shops, very organised.

Second First Impression: 10 minutes later we joined the longest and slowest passport control experienced (with exception of some US airport). 1 hour of frustration.

Third First Impression: to avoid paying $25 of taxi to the city and get the bus (0.35 cents) one has to walk out of the airport along the road and there are no signs. Luckily the people we asked were all very friendly.

Fourth First Impression: a large part of Panama City is old and in ruins (see pictures)

Fifth First Impression: we tried to book into our selected hostel but it was full. We tried another recommended one which was also full. We then started inspecting other available hotels with the following experience:
"Hotel Paraiso": they offered rooms for $10 per 4 hours. Surely it was not the type of hotel we needed!
"Hotel Volcano": we inspected the rooms (2 of them) and we seriously doubted that we would both fit in. They were more similar to doll houses than real hotel rooms. Additionaly they did also look like places that were rented per hour!

We finally made it to Hostel Monaco which has turned out to be a very nice one for $18 with tv, air conditioning, ensuite bathroom, and a size sufficient to fit half of the Bolshoi ballet in each room. We emphasise the importance of air conditioning in Panama City as the humidity is intense. Its sweaty town!

Today we walked all around the old part of Panama City which was a Spanish colonial port. 50% or more of the buildings are in a very sorry state, either falling down or tatty. However, the goverment has worked hard to restore many important buildings and the aspect in those areas is quite impressive.

We then walked along a never ending pedestrian and commercial street (Central) and had a chance to chat to a couple of locals which finally pushed the "first impression" balance towards "what a nice place this is". Most people look extremely serious but once one starts talking to them they are incredibly friendly and willing to chat...especially about Spain and football!

The whole of Panama City has come to a halt with the Real Madrid - Barcelona match (4-1 to Real Madrid by the way!). There are lots of people wearing Spanish football t-shirts and they love to watch the matches on TV: It was actually a shop assistant that reminded us that the match had just we joined a bunch of Panameņans at a local coffee shop to follow it.

There is so much passion for Spanish football here that some cars even have their license plates with the Real Madrid and Barcelona colours. A curious thing here is that cars only have to have the official license plate in the back part, so they can put whatever decoration on the front part.

With regards to currency, the US Dollar is the local currency, even though all prices are in "Balboas". However, these donīt exist and there is a 1 to 1 value.

Anyway, not much more to add to the pictures we have included, except that today we have the feeling that we have survived quite a few things in the South American continent. A few that we can point out are:

1- Chile: we survived rolling down a 45 degrees sand hill with our camper van thanks to the 4x4.
2- Argentina: we survived the worst meat grill restaurant in the World in Buenos Aires.
3- Uruguay: we managed to survive not mixing with high season travellers to Punta del Este
4- Paraguay: we survived the yellow fever explosion the day we arrived and Ciudad del Este - city with no law
5- Brasil: we survived passing it without having to get any local currency (4 hours!)
6- Bolivia: we survived being nationalised by Evo Morales and getting blocked by oposition road blocks
7- Peru: we managed to avoid paying more than 300% for taxis!
8- Ecuador: we survived mad drivers and sliding roads

Most important we have survived over 4 months and 8 countries without suffering any attempt (that we know of) of robbery, theft, aggressions or loss of property. In comparision to the people we have met along the route...that has to be a new World Record! continues: tomorrow we visit the Panama Canal.
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