Panama Day 1 – Panama City
1st February 2022
Today, four days later than planned, we are finally leaving Costa Rica; our next destination – Panama City. I can remember learning about the building of the Panama Canal at school (a long time ago) so am very excited to be visiting this engineering Wonder of the World.
It’s a stressful start to the morning, as I have scheduled an Uber, but the hotel wifi is down so I cannot receive notifications of if/when it will arrive. The first 3 drivers cancel, but finally we’re on our way. It feels so good to be checking out of my ‘isolation hotel’ and getting on the move again, even if the majority of the day will consist of taxi-airport-plane-airport-taxi.
Everything runs smoothly, the plane lands early, there is no queue at immigration (hooray), the bags arrive quickly, and half an hour after we were due to land, we are sitting in our 17th floor glass-fronted hotel room admiring the view. It’s easy to admire the view, as there is a button next to the bed which opens and shuts the curtains!
Once I’m over my fascination with the electric curtains, we go for a walk along the prom (or Cinta Costera as they call it here). We are staying in the city centre – our original hotel in the Canal Zone was full – so we are further away from the old town than we’d hoped.
We walk from our hotel to the Casco Viejo (4 miles) in the heat. It is by far my longest post-covid exertion and I’m hot and tired by the time we reach our destination.
So we find somewhere to rest and have dinner; Nomada. And it’s happy hour – so a couple of medicinal frozen margaritas (passion fruit and strawberry) help to cool me down! Then, an Uber back to the hotel to watch the sunset from my bed in the sky.
Today we’re (kind of) back on track as we’re taking our original flight to Bocas del Toro; a group of Caribbean islands just off the Panamanian coast. We had originally planned to return from there to San José by a couple of bus rides to keep costs down. But as we have only spent one night in Panama City, we will now fly back at the weekend for our rescheduled canal trip.
Panama Day 1 – Panama City to Bocas del Toro
2nd February 2022
We get up and go for breakfast, which is served on the patio with a great view. The lady next to us coughs incessantly. She sounds like she has Covid, however she polishes off 5 plate fulls of food, so whatever her ailment, it certainly hasn’t affected her appetite. Breakfast is a non self-service buffet. The food is behind a screen and you have to ask servers to pass it through holes in the screen onto your plate. I ask for toast, she toasts bread and puts it onto my plate. At this point I realise the bread has nuts on and ask her to remove it and give me a croissant instead. She looks most unimpressed! She removes the toast and dumps the croissant onto a pile of nuts that fell off the toast. I retreat with a handful of butters and jams and despatch the old man to get me an uncontaminated croissant.
We store most of our luggage and check out at 9 am. Our flight isn’t until 1 pm, so we have sufficient time to visit Miraflores Visitor Centre first. This consists of a 4 storey museum (which is shut) with a viewing platform over Miraflores lock on the top.
We’ve timed it completely wrong; just before we arrive, a cruise ship turns up and nearly all its passengers disembark to watch it pass through the lock from the visitor centre, so we end up behind a queue of hundreds of elderly Americans and have to wait ages to be let in.
Eventually, the cruise ship is through the lock, the elderly Americans are bused back to rejoin it, and it’s our turn to access the viewing platform. We get to watch a couple of ships pass through the lock, complete with a running commentary, which is very interesting. It’s a crazy idea – a canal between two oceans, passing over a mountain, slicing a country in two! Apparently, the first attempt (by the French) was to build a level canal by cutting a hole through the mountain, but that failed because the engineer only visited Panama in the (short) dry season and once it started raining, 22,000 workers died (from drowning or being eaten by snakes/spiders).
We can’t stay long – even though it’s 4 hours until our domestic flight and the airport is only 3 miles away, the old man is fussing like an old woman about the possibility of not being able to find a taxi/problems at check-in etc. So we set off (our Uber takes 3 minutes to arrive, check takes about the same amount of time) and we are sitting at the gate 90 minutes prior to departure.
Some time later we board the tiny plane for the 45 minute flight to Bocas. On the way, we get a great view of the ships sailing along the canal and queuing in the lake for the next set of locks.
We land in Bocas. The runway runs parallel with a mangrove swamps which is filled with the most litter I’ve ever seen outside an actual rubbish tip. We disembark and enter the terminal building where an airport employee welcomes us to paradise. I like to think of paradise as being significantly less strewn with crap.
We walk into town and have a beer in a waterfront bar, then attempt to catch a taxi. In Bocas, taxis are not exclusive – there are already people in the taxi headed in the opposite direction who we must drop off first, and we stop to pick up more passengers along the way (as they won’t fit, he tells them to wait by the road while he drops someone else off, then we do a U turn and go back to pick them up). Eventually, it’s our turn to be dropped off. We are staying at the Villa Sevilla. As the old man’s Spanish accent isn’t great, the driver sets off for the Selina. Luckily, the mistake is quickly rectified and we set off for the correct destination.
After a couple of miles on the main (only) road, he suddenly turns onto a dirt track, drives a few hundred metres and stops in the middle of nowhere. At first I assume we’re being mugged, but then I see a sign on the gate – we are at the Villa Sevilla.
It’s a lot more remote than I’d anticipated – had I known, I wouldn’t have turned up at 3 pm without having lunch/purchasing provisions.
The accommodation consists of the owners’ house (a Spanish couple) and 4 cabins in a garden with a pool in a clearing in the rainforest. Once I’ve got over the remoteness of it (the owners are very hospitable and even offer to run the old man into town to the supermarket), we settle in to our home for the next 3 nights. Only one of the other cabins are occupied – so it’s like our own private accommodation. There’s even a bar (which consists of a fridge full of drinks and an honesty box) and we can sit and drink beer and eat chips on our veranda, whilst watching the wild life (monkeys, hummingbirds, bats and even a sloth – we paid $20 to see a sloth in Costa Rica, and now there’s one just hanging there in front of our bedroom!)
Panama Day 3 – Bocas del Toro
3rd February 2022
We wake up at – who knows? My iPhone is struggling to work out where the f*** we are and keeps randomly swapping between Panamanian and Costa Rican time. My watch is Bluetoothed to my phone, so the only way of finding out the time is googling ‘What time is it in Panama’? No matter, it’s impossible to sleep past dawn when the howler monkeys wake up anyway.
So I get up and sit on the veranda and watch the monkeys, who are in the tree above the bar, until breakfast is served. It’s a very civilised affair – the owner lays the table on our veranda and brings pancakes with banana and chocolate, followed by eggs and toast. The old man is in seventh heaven as the fact the pancakes are covered in nutella means he gets two platefuls, which he swaps for a couple of pieces of his toast. Not the best deal I’ve ever made!
The combination of two full days of travel, plus sightseeing, on top of my recent illness have left me totally wiped out. So while the old man goes island hopping, I retire to a little cabin, complete with daybed, by the pool with a book. I’ve run out of books of my own, and the only English language book I can find here is ‘Death and the Penguin’: “In today’s Ukraine, all that stands between one man and murder by the mafia is a penguin”.
My relaxing day by my ‘private’ pool is interrupted by more guests checking in. They’re German. And religious. She comes over to introduce herself and tell me she’s here for the animals – she thanks God for the animals! I resist the urge to bury myself in my Ukrainian mafia v penguin novel and offer to show her where the sloth hangs out.
The old man returns around 4 pm. I have finally decided to move my idle arse and take a walk along the track to the main (only) road, which runs along the coast and I find him being dropped off by a taxi at the junction. I had planned to walk along the beach, but also at the junction is a lot of sewage discharging itself into the sea, which puts me off the whole beach idea.
Somewhat ironically, we’re on Isla Colon, surrounded by the contents of our own colons. I read that 95% of the island’s income comes from tourism, so it’s sad that so effort is put in to keeping the island clean, rather than resembling a rubbish tip surrounded by a sewer.
After the old man has told me about his day – island hopping wasn’t as straightforward as the guide book made it sound). In theory, water taxis run to the neighbouring islands. In reality, he was the only person who wanted a taxi and they refused to make the journey for just one person. After a 30 minute wait, the driver agreed to take him to his chosen island, Isla Bastimentos for $10 and pick him up later for another $10. The old man visited his island, paid a further $5 to walk on the beach, then eets his boat for the return journey, to be told the price has gone up to $20!)
We walk to the nearest restaurant, Skullys, for dinner overlooking the sea and select a table. It’s dirty and obviously hasn’t been cleaned since the previous occupants left. A waitress appears. I assume she’s going to clean the table, but she dumps a couple of menus in the mess and departs. While we’re perusing the menus and I’m wondering if they have a similar approach to cleanliness in the kitchen, it starts to rain. Luckily, the waitress hasn’t bothered coming to take our order so we leave.
Across the road is a tiny pizzeria, Ciao Pizza, where they make fresh pizza with home made sourdough in a wood fired oven. I order the vegetarian, which comes topped with an array of vegetables including aubergine. I wouldn’t think to put aubergine on a pizza, but it works. The rest of the evening is spent on the veranda eating pizza and drinking beer.
Last night was not great; the old man’s wriggling kept making the bed shake (not exactly what one has in mind vis a vis their husband making the earth move!) That, plus the noise from the a/c make sleep impossible. At 5.30 I get up, douse myself with insect repellent, fight my way through the mice, and a cricket the size of a coconut, at the bar to retrieve a Diet Coke, and sit on the veranda reading my Ukrainian penguin v mafia novel.
It seems I’m not the only one who can’t sleep; a few minutes later the howler monkeys start their pre-dawn chorus (how can something so small make such a big noise?) and the Germans emerge with torches and announce they’re off to see the animals. By 5.45, the old man is the only guest still asleep.
Some time later… we have breakfast and the old man departs for a boat trip which he has booked. I opt to stay by the pool with my book. I think I’ve made the right decision, as it rains pretty much all day (lord only knows what it’s like in the wet season!) and I am able to take shelter in the little poolside cabin, complete with day bed and fairy lights.
And that’s how I spend pretty much all of my day. In the afternoon, I take a nap and the earth really does move – an earthquake in Costa Rica! Then I go for a swim with my new BFFs (the religious Germans). He tells me about the highlight of his day – finding a huge boa constrictor which wrapped itself around his arm!
The old man finally reappears from his trip. We eat dinner on the veranda where we are joined by a huge, flappy moth which causes me to scream so loud the owner comes out to check no-one’s died.
Panama Travel Diary Day 5 – Isla Carenero
5th February 2022
Today is our last day on Bocas del Toro – the question is how to fill it? Our flight isn’t until 5.45 pm, but the somewhat chaotic nature of public transport here means we don’t want to risk going too far and getting stuck. We decide to take a bus into town, and from there a water taxi to another island – Isla Carenero (Careening Island – thus named as Columbus’ ships were careened – had their sails repaired – here in 1502). As I’m so worried about getting stuck on the island and not being able to get back for our flight, we agree with our driver to pick us up at 3 pm, thus giving us plenty of time to reach the airport.
I attempt to disembark onto the jetty. First, my rucksack (bearing in mind, we have checked out, so this contains our passports, money, medication…). Just as the rucksack is hovering over the jetty and I am about to let go, the old man leaps out of the boat. The force created by 20 stones of pensioner lunging forwards causes the boat to lurch violently backwards. I just about manage to rescue the rucksack and all my worldly goods from going swimming with the fishes!
Carenero is an island of two parts; around the edges are tourist cabins and bars built on stilts overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Inland the islanders live in much less pleasant conditions. The old man is in ‘aimless wander’ mode and so we set off along a trail through a slum where children play football in the dust while the adults mostly sit around drinking beer. One man appears to be getting his kicks from abusing a chicken.
We head to one of the aforementioned bars on stilts (Bibi’s on the Beach) for lunch. The old man orders a whole fish. The only vegetarian option contains nuts, so I opt for fish fingers & chips. The old man points out that I’ve ordered fish fingers ‘which probably came from Iceland’. I argue that we’re on a tiny, tropical island surrounded by the sea – why would they import processed, frozen fish when it’s the only natural resource at their disposal?
Finally, after a long wait, our food comes. As anticipated, my fish is not processed. It’s not that great nice either; when you bite into each goujon, a stream of hot fat gushes out. But the chips are good.
We return to the jetty shortly before the prearranged meeting time. There is, in fact, a succession of boats, all of which we turn down because it seems rude not to wait for the driver we’d arranged to meet.
3 pm comes and goes with no sign of Lorenzo. So we take the next boat which claims to be returning to Bocas. The problem is thus; I hate boats. I had agreed to do this trip as it only takes a few minutes on the calm water between two islands close together. When I climbed aboard the boat, I had assumed we were going straight back, across a few hundred metres of calm water. However, he is keen to find more passengers. Hence, he sets off instead around the island towards the windward side, over the coral, into big waves breaking over the reef, in search of passengers. I don’t do waves (nor does my passport) and have a total meltdown, screaming at him to stop! At this point, in a bid to stop my screaming, the driver turns towards the island, out of the waves but dangerously close to the coral. Needless to say, we head back to Bocas without adding to our passenger tally and a I stumble shakily off the boat.
Once my legs no longer feel like jelly, we walk to the airport and check in for our flight. It departs early, which means we land in Panama City just as the sun is setting to a spectacular view of the city and the ships queuing to enter the canal. We catch a taxi back to our hotel, the Plaza Paitilla Inn, where we are reunited with our suitcase and our room in the sky (not so much sky this time, as we’re only on the 10th floor).
Panama Travel Diary Day 6 – Panama Canal
Today is the highlight of my trip and it doesn’t disappoint; we are doing a partial transit of the Panama Canal. It’s a southbound transit – in general, ships travel northbound through the locks north in the morning and south in the afternoon – so we are picked up by a minibus around midday.
First, we have time to watch some of the Panama Ironman (without even having to get out of bed), with the cycling discipline passing by our hotel. The event started with a 1.2 mile swim in the canal, which really doesn’t look like the colour for water you’d want to immerse your face in. Then a 56 mile cycle up and down the flyover – by the now the temperature has reached 32 degrees – rounded off by a half marathon on the causeway. That’s quite a feat – I overheat just leaving my air conditioned hotel room!
Once the triathlon is over and the roads reopen, we are picked up and driven 20 miles to Gatun Lake where we board our boat – the Pacific Queen, and set sail for the Pacific Ocean.
We pass through the huge Lake Gatún (an elevated artificial lake created by damming the Río Changres and flooding a valley) and into the Culebra Cut (a 12.7 km artificial trough blasted through the continental divide).
After passing under Centennial Bridge, where the Pan American Highway crosses the canal, we reach our first lock; Pedro Miguel. To economise on water, we must buddy up with a bigger ship – out buddy is a car container, the New Century 2. Once we are in position, which is fairly easy as we’re only small, it’s time for the huge container ship to be manoeuvred into place. Ships pass through the locks under their own power, tethered to locomotives on either side which keep them centred. With only around 45 cm margin for error, it’s a slow and skilful job.
Once the ship is in place, the lock gates close and we drop 9 metres to reach the height of the next lake; Miraflores. The process takes around 10 minutes and displaces over a million litres of water.
Time for a quick bite to eat during a lull in the action; a packed lunch and soft drinks are included in the tour. As is the very informative bilingual commentary, hence all the nerdy facts…
Sandwiches dealt with, we head back on deck for Miraflores Locks. Here, there is a double lock with two sets of 9 metre locks to negotiate. This time we are buddied up with an oil tanker – the Elka Hercules. The same routine, only times two; we get into position, wait for the container ship to be manoeuvred into place by the tugs and locomotives, water displaced, lock gates open, move forward and repeat. By the final lock, there is less jostling for position at the bow (most of the American tour groups have retired to the air conditioned bar) and I can actually get a better view of the process.
We are sailing through one of the two original sets of locks which measure 320 metres x 33 metres; to our right is the third set which form the canal expansion deal with even larger ships. We pass alongside two enormous fluorescent pink cargo ships (the One Motivator and One Maxim) which can carry 14,000 containers each.
After the locks, we continue under the Bridge of the Americas (when it was built, it was the only thing linking the American continents) towards the ocean, sailing parallel to the Amador Causeway. The causeway joins three former islands to the mainland and was created with spoils from digging the canal. Here, our 5 hour canal journey is over and we disembark into the minibus waiting to take us back to the hotel.
It’s been an exciting but tiring day, just time for a pizza and a couple of beers before retiring for the night.
Panama Travel Diary Day 7 – Panama City (Casco Viejo)
Planning a trip to Panama City was a bit like doing a jigsaw; post pandemic, most tourist attractions are only open a few days a week and putting together an itinerary which incorporated everything I wanted to do was fiddly. Then I caught Covid and we had to change all our flights. The result – our only full day for sightseeing is a Monday, when most touristy things are closed, so we plan to mostly spend the day wandering around looking at the outsides of things.
Our first stop (after the breakfast buffet – you can’t keep the old man away from a breakfast buffet) is the Casco Viejo – the old town. Or to be more precise, the old new town. The original site of the town (Panama Viejo) was a few miles to the northeast. After it was sacked by Henry Morgan in 1671, the city was rebuilt in its new location, hence Casco Viejo is the old new town or is it the new old town?
We consult my guide book and plot a route, starting at Palacio de las Garzas. My guide book helpfully informs me that this is the residence of the President of Panama. It omits to mention that the area is heavily guarded, so getting anywhere near it is impossible. Our Uber drops us as close as it is permitted, and we set off for out next destination on foot.
To be honest, it’s such a picturesque neighbourhood with interesting buildings and plazas up every little street, so we switch to the old man’s favourite mode; aimless wander and just pootle around taking photos, sitting on a bench in the shade from time to time as it’s too hot to walk for any length of time.
The Casco Viejo contains an eclectic mix of buildings – from embassies and fancy boutique hotels to slums and ruins. And several churches. The most interesting church is the Iglesia de San José. My guide book tells me that this contains a golden altar removed from Panama Viejo. Rumour has it, that shortly before the pirates arrived, the priest concealed the altar. When infamous pirate Henry Morgan asked where it was, the priest replied that it needed repairing and asked for a donation. Henry allegedly replied that he thought the priest was a bigger pirate than him! My guide book has omitted to mention that taking up most of the crypt, is the biggest, tackiest nativity scene I’ve ever seen.
We continue to the furthest point of the Casco Viejo; Paseo las Bóvedas – a flower covered walkway with views over the ocean and canal, which leads to Plaza de Francia, where a monumental cock pays homage to the French attempt to build a canal. Which could probably best be described as a monumental cock up!
From the Casco Viejo we take an Uber to the Canal Zone and the Canal Administration Building; this contains a set of murals depicting the building of the canal. I have double checked the opening times on the website. However, when we arrive, a security guard informs us that the murals cannot be viewed due to Covid.
We walk down the hill to McDonalds so we can connect to wifi and order an Uber back to the hotel. They don’t have wifi so we have to make do with a McFlurry instead. We could just get a regular taxi – there are plenty of them driving about looking for passengers. However, the old man will not be derailed from his original plan to find wifi and thence an Uber. He decides we should walk to the mall. This involves crossing an 8 lane highway plus a motorway. He thinks this will be fine if we run! It’s not the best plan: Firstly, I haven’t seen him run in months. Secondly, the motorway is elevated. And thirdly, we would have to run across right next to police headquarters.
Instead, we walk along the edge of the highway for another mile or so before he finally relents and we hail a taxi. The 4 mile ride back to our hotel costs $4. Walking a mile down a motorway in the scorching midday heat has saved us 38 cents.
After several drinks, a cool down in the pool and a restorative bag of chips, we have an early night. It has been a tiring day and we have a day of travel ahead of us tomorrow.