This year I have been subbing a lot. There are many times when subbing that I have time to just sit and do nothing. I have often taken this time to read travel blogs, which led to me having a major case of wanderlust! So I looked up where some cheap places to go in the spring are, and Panama it is!
I went from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale to Panama City. I was on a red-eye flight coming into Panama, so I didn’t arrive at Luna’s Castle (my hostel for the next few days) until 2:30 am. And I wasn’t able to check in until 1:00 pm. So I slept on a couch in the common area. Very noisy with all the drunks winding down, but I was soooo tired, so it didn’t bother me much. Thanks to construction being done on the roof, I was up bright and EARLY!
Day 1 – Casco Viejo, Panama City
I took the opportunity to explore the neighborhood, Casco Viejo, on my first day to get my bearings, plus I hadn’t met anyone at the hostel yet. I stopped by Plaza del Francia. Very pretty with a great view of the city and the causeway! It was so interesting walking around this area. Some buildings are very well kept and beautiful, while others were really needing a little TLC and others were completely abandoned with missing roofs. A very strange mix.
There was also lots of graffiti everywhere…
Later I wanted to check out the Canal Museum. On the way there, it started sprinkling. It felt great! The humidity here is just nuts, which made for a very sweaty, smelly Brooke Teacher. The museum was nothing too spectacular, but I did learn some new things about the canal. And bonus, it had AIR CONDITIONING!! So I rented the English digi-guide and took my sweet time checking everything out.
After that, after waking up from a nap, I met my bunk neighbor, Anette from Sweden. We became good friends throughout my trip. It can be so hard meeting new people as an introvert. There always seems to be groups of people that know each other, and it’s hard to just walk up and say “Hey! Be my friend.” So I decided to check out Happy Hour… Lots of people and a little liquid courage!
Day 2 – Panama Canal Railroad to Colon & Salsa Dancing in Casco Viejo
This morning, I caught the early train along the Panama Canal Railroad to the Pacific side of the Canal. On the train, the tourists sit in an elevated railroad car so we can see everything. What I saw: jungle, a golf course, a graveyard for old buses, and water. One interesting thing about the water, though, there were lots of trees popping out all over. It appeared that the trees had all been cut down, because they were all only a foot or two out of the water and no leaves or branches. Hmm.
So when I got on the train that morning, I had expected to arrive at a tourist information center at the train station. I guess you could kind of say that’s what we came upon… If you count a parking lot the middle of an industrial park filled with pushy taxi drivers waving posters for all the places they can take you. All the drivers I talked to did not accept credit cards, and how stupid, all I grabbed that morning was my credit card and $80 in cash. I needed to save $50 for the train ride back and then a taxi after that, so basically I was screwed. My day was going to suck. I walked up to the last taxi driver left after everyone else hopped in their taxis to see all the wonderful things Colon had to offer. Our conversation went something like this…
“Can you take me to the mall?”
“No, I take you to beautiful place. You pay me.”
“I have no money.”
“I take you to ATM.”
“I only have my credit card. No ATM.”
“Yes, ATM for cash.”
“No, it won’t work.”
“So you want to go to mall?” (in the most disgusted voice he could muster)
I got to the mall before it opened, of course, and it started storming. (This made me a little happier that I did not spend over $100 to go on a tour with the taxi driver.) The only place open was the grocery store. So I walked around there for as long as I could make it last, which was not long. But thankfully they had some books in English for sale! A very limited selection, but they did have the 50 Shades Darker. I’ve already read the first one, so this worked out. It was going to be me, Anastasia, and dreamy Mr. Christian Grey. I was thinking I could hang out in a coffee shop for most of the day. Yea, no coffee shop. Then I was hoping to hang out in the restaurants and use their wi-fi. Well, there were restaurants, but no wi-fi. This day was going just splendidly.
After reading for a couple hours and having lunch, I did a little window shopping. I did notice that there were A LOT of clothes with tags that said “Made in the USA.” Weird, you don’t see much of that back home. Also, their mannequins were very, ummm, realistic. All different sizes. Some skinny all around (like you always see in the US). Some were full figured. And some were very, very large in the chest area and skinny everywhere else.
I read for a couple more hours and enjoyed a delicious mango-banana-papaya milkshake before I got a taxi back to the train “station.” That morning I definitely thought this day would SUCK! I just felt like crying. Very lost and alone with no way of getting money or contacting anybody. But as I sat waiting for the train, I realized that it was perfect. I am so busy back home that I had been craving a day to just sit around and read.
While we were all waiting for the train, we heard a really loud bang! At first I thought it was just a car backfiring. Nope. A bunch of fireworks in the middle of the afternoon over an old beaten up green apartment complex. Hmm. Maybe some celebration fireworks for the wonderful day I had??
Back in Panama City, Anette and I went to Rene Café. Here you pick what meat you want and they surprise you with everything else. Breads and spread, salad, the main course (I had a delicious plate of chicken with rice and veggies), and THEN dessert! Completely stuffed for only $10!
Now time for some Salsa dancing! We went to Habana Panama. Great band! Wonderful dancing! Well watching anyways. We didn’t get asked. Try again tomorrow.
Day 3 – Panama City Sightseeing Bus & Salsa Dancing at Habana Panama
Lots of rain today. So Anette and I took it pretty easy. Later we went on the Panama City Sightseeing Bus. Going through the city was… Interesting. Traffic was SO bad! Lots of litter everywhere. Majority of buildings were not very well kept. It was kind of a drag. But I loved seeing the decorated buses everywhere! As we got farther away from the city center, the traffic got a bit better. We had dinner at a restaurant at the end of the causeway. We drove by a big political rally… Best to avoid that.
Salsa Dancing: Episode 2… We ended up at Habana Panama again, and we actually got asked to dance! A man came up and asked me to dance and had his friend dance with Anette. After a dance or two, this is what my dance partner said to me…
“You need to learn to follow man’s lead.”
So needless to say he wasn’t a fan of my moves. I can’t blame him. This was my first time ever salsa dancing, and it is difficult following a man when you have NO idea where your feet will go next. He then pawned me off on his friend so he could dance with Anette. He was much more satisfied with her moves! My new partner… well… he wasn’t so critical on my lack of salsa skills. He was also hard to follow, because his moves were so subtle, which made it even more difficult to understand what I was supposed to do. All in all, it was a fun experience. Thank you Panamanian men for taking a chance on me!
Day 4 – Paddle Boarding
My morning was filled with reading, then shopping with Anette.
Later on, I got to go paddle boarding! When I first arrived at Luna’s Castel (my hostel) a few days ago, I had seen an ad for Panama Paddle in Casco Viejo. A young New Jersey man, John, recently started a paddle boarding business. He took me out on the ocean, which was a little intimidating. The swell was a little intense for me. We paddled around the bay. He pointed out where the ghetto is and how a different gang runs each building. Some of his students (he also runs a tae kwon do gym) live there and showed him around one day. They couldn’t walk down one street, because the kids say they don’t ever walk down that street. One night the kids couldn’t come to class because there was a gun fight outside. So sad that this is some kids’ reality.
Then we paddled to the other side of the causeway bridge. The waves weren’t breaking, but the swell was still pretty big! (I never worked up the courage to actually stand up on the board.) We watched some surfers for a little bit. One of his friends borrowed a paddle board and was catching some waves on that. Pretty neat to watch! But not for me. Another fun time!
After that, Anette and I met some more friends at Happy Hour and had a nice relaxing night.
Day 5 – Panama Canal & Cerra Ancon (Last Day!)
As my last day in Panama, I HAD to make it to the Canal! There was a HUGE cargo ship just coming in when I got there. It was really incredible to see how many cargo trailers these ships can hold. It was already in the first lock when I got there, not lifted or anything yet. It took about 30 minutes to get through and released into the lake. It is just remarkable what they were able to accomplish back in the early 1900’s. This year (2014) marks the 100th year since the 1st ship went through. I had been told by some people at the hostel that it wasn’t that interesting, but I am so glad I went. Definitely a must see in my book!
After lunch, I talked Anette into going to Cerra Ancon with me. Cerra Ancon is the highest place in the city. Just a big hill. We hiked to the top, which was a bit wet. We were sweating pretty heavily (note: crazy humidity) and it was raining a little bit. We were able to get a great view of the city all around, which was beautiful! We also saw lots of little rodents running around up there called agouti. I’d say they are a nice mix of rats and rabbits… Leaning more towards rats.
When we got back to the hostel, we took some much needed showers, went out to dinner, and had a couple drinks at the cute little bar next to our hostel before we caught the red-eye (we just so happened to both be booked on the same flight along with her friend Dario) back to America!
We also made friends with the neighborhood security guards. Luna’s Castle is located in Casco Viejo, which is where the President of Panama lives, so there were security guards at every corner.