Hitting the airport again….

It’s kind of a shame that Loquitohermoso doesn’t get updated all that often these days. But the truth is that daily life doesn’t really translate well into prose, no matter how amusing or just plain weird some of the stuff I come across at work is at the time. It’s probably about time to tell the one about the corpse in the sofa since a fair amount of time’s passed… Another time!

I’ve settled into life in Minehead far quicker than I had any reason to hope- Joining the lifeboat crew was one of the best social moves for sure, and other activities like running and yoga have enabled me to make a good extended group of acquaintances and a few new friends within the last 10 months. 

Travel has taken a bit of a back seat- Obviously I have had some great little forays such as my 5 nights in Andalusia in March and also an amazing 4 nights wild camping down the South West Coast Path, so there’s little real cause for complaint. I’ve needed to get things a bit sorted at home before setting my sights elsewhere. But now, in November, without any substantial time off since January, I am certainly in need of a break!

This trip was conceived on a complete whim- Several months ago I was idly flicking through some flight deal notifications (On the sofa, in my pants, however that’s irrelevant to the tale) and came across the Aeromexico sale, with scarcely believable low fares to destinations all across Central and South America. With little time to decide, I picked dates which would mean only one set of shifts off work- A solid 2 weeks- and stuck the pin in the map to Panama, the next logical step in my travels since i reached up to Colombia on my gap yah and I do love a bit of continuity.

£137 return is an incredibly good price for this route, the only slight downside being that it was from AMS-PTY. Luckily I only live 90 minutes away from Bristol airport, so a further £110 return including bags with Easyjet to get over the pond and I was good to go.

The hop over to Amsterdam is a pretty reliable one. Unfortunately my brinksmanship didn’t extend to flying out on the same night (arrive 2045, flight out 2225… Nope. Without bags it would be tight but doable though!) so I thought I’d treat myself to a bit of a mini Amsterdam break on the way out. 

Amstertastic

I booked into the Ibis Schiphol. Pretty good deal for £60/night with a hoofing great bed and comfortable room. I’ve arrived… Holibobs are here!

I’d definitely recommend the place, it was the cheapest option by far in Amsterdam and there’s a free shuttle, minutes from the airport. Although, on this point I really am intrigued by the new Mercure that’s actually within the airport past security… Roll out of bed an hour before your flight? I’m in. Unfortunately the anxious duck inside me would never actually leave it that late, so the benefit would be dulled somewhat.

Ibis is, of course, in the middle of nowhere so don’t get funny ideas about actually leaving- The golden arches were so near, so far that eating in was the only option. There’s a halfway reasonably priced a la carte restaurant and the burger bar I went for, with an absolutely banging American diner-style smorgasbord of options.

I treated myself to an extremely late morning. Checkout’s at 12, so leaving any time before 11.59’s wasteful, right? I’VE PAID FOR THE GODDAMN ROOM AND I’M GONNA USE IT, RIGHT!?

Amsterdam is extremely user-friendly in terms of public transport, and the central station’s only 17 minutes away so you definitely can escape the airport if you want to on a layover of reasonable length. There are loads of luggage lockers near to the train station in Schiphol which run from 7 to 10 Euros per 24hrs depending on size of bag. I checked in, dumped my bag in a locker and hit the city.

Amsterdam was predictably lovely, even more so given the guest appearance of a strange glowing orb in the sky. Cold, but sunny and wonderful nonetheless. My explorations didn’t range terribly far given my lie-in, just a wander around the cobbled streets of Jordaan and some excellent beer. Excuse the crappy phone photos, I didn’t want to look like even more of a wanker by photographing my lunch with a big camera.

After meeting with a travelling mate for even more beers, time was starting to tick down. I couldn’t miss Body Worlds though, since it was right on my way back to the station. Gunther Von Hagen’s celebrated but controversial exhibition using real plastinated corpses. This exhibition was themed around Happiness, and was nothing less than fascinating. People might find the sight of corpses arranged like this macabre. I thought it was brilliant, and I’m sure the willing volunteers would be happy to have achieved temporary immortality in this way. I learnt a lot!

 

Cameo duck appearance. Nice to see Enthusiasts within the scientific community.

So, back to the airport, drop the bag and oonwards, ever onwards… The 12hr flight to MEX was surprisingly bearable. A combination of Nytol, lots of food and a window seat helped, only waking up 90mins away from arrival with a very weird breakfast- Scrambled eggs, apple and yoghurt. I really wasn’t feeling green apples at 0230hrs. This is my second flight on a 787 Dreamliner, and I remain extremely impressed- There definitely is something about its oxygen management and cabin pressure that leave you more alive at the end. I remain extremely unimpressed, however, at airlines’ continuing squeeze on seat pitch and width. It’s getting silly now, we can’t all travel Clase Premier you know… When even I feel a bit restricted around the hips, I feel for the larger of stature.

A slight bugbear with Mexico City airport is that, like in the US, you have to clear immigration and re-check your bags, but it wasn’t a major hardship and a fairly quick system. One particularly amusing aspect of Mexico City airport are the numerous signs around the terminal basically saying “Airlines blame presidential flights for delaying their arrivals, but this is false!” It also features a piechart apparently showing where delays originate from. Clearly a bit of an ‘issue’ for someone to have gone to the trouble of printing hundreds of banners to go around the airport announcing it!

Since I had a 5hr layover ahead of me I decided to gainfully employ some airmiles in the Aeromar executive lounge. It would be £25 for anyone else, but I’m not likely to use my miles on anything else so gave it a punt. I probably didn’t get my money’s worth however it was a comfortable 3 hours with good wifi, and unlimited coffee and snacks (Plus a purloined beer to go) so overall a win. Looking forward to more fully exploiting it upon my return evening flight.

Panama Canal from the air

Viva Panama

MEX to Panama City didn’t, sadly, involve a Dreamliner. Rather, as the custom seems to go on shorter South American routes, an ancient 737. Like, really ancient. Hey, we got there bang on time. I did somewhat reassess my thought processes around going to Panama though, and not just stopping in Mexico, since the weather looked WAY better further up.

With no further ado though, I hit the cab ranks. I was absolutely, wholeheartedly, with every fibre of my being determined not to pay the ‘official’ rate of $35 or more. But not quite enough to justify the lengthy city bus into town. A faff too far. So, I tried to find the colectivo stand. Spoiler- There isn’t one. Cabbies just gather like-minded passengers who are going to the same destination and fancy sharing. The going rate with a shared cab to Casco Viejo is apparently $15 per passenger. So, you need to mingle and habla.

I brushed off the first few offers but started talking to one guy who seemed particularly keen. It’s at times like these that I fricking love having passable negotiating Spanish. After a very minimal haggling process in which I stated that I was happy to just wait for more passengers, we settled on a fare of $20 just for me. Result of the century. Even better was when he led me to an actual taxi rather than a van with “gringo trap” painted on it. I did take the standard insurance policy of taking a very visible photo of the licence plate before getting in. This does seem to work, counter-intuitive as it may seem to hoik out expensive electronics to take the photo. It means you’re on the ball.

On the way we chatted and he explained that he needed to get back to the city, so a return passenger was preferable to an empty cab. I was more than happy with the half price bargain.

Casco Viejo from the Cinta Costera

Casco Viejo

Home for the next few days was Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama situated on a peninsula overlooking the megawatt commercail skyline. Naturally, like all popular tourist areas it’s the most ‘rustic’ and dilapidated corner of the city where hardly any Panamanians live. There is a certain faded charm about the whole place though, and UNESCO are all over some large-scale renovations, which you can see And hear everywhere. I stayed at Magnolia Inn, a smart American-run place with great value dorms.

It’s normally a bit of a trek from the airport, however as well as being cheap my taxi driver was utterly certifiable and made his way through the heavy traffic in a manner I haven’t seen since Frogger. The cab made surprisingly good progress on approximately 1.5 of its original cylinders. 

Casco Viejo makes up a small peninsula on the tip of the older parts of Panama City. Previously the home of rich merchants and the well-to-do, it remains a significant area with a number of Government buildings and associated military/cops dotted around the place.  Safety’s all relative though- Whilst Casco Viejo is considered a safe tourist area it’s on the cusp of some seriously rough neighbourhoods, so you’re advised to “Stay south-east of Calle 12″… I didn’t really need this advice since on a wander my spidey senses were already tingling at the aforementioned street and it all started to feel like a better idea to come back to the main bit.

There’s plenty to see, although to be honest much more than 2 days here would be wasting time. There’s so much to see elsewhere in this little country that hanging around a city is a shame. In my humble opinion. Unfortunately my attempts at escape were thwarted by national holidays- The guide who does the very reasonably-priced Parque Nacional Soberania trip was away for the month, and likewise I couldn’t do the city/canal tour for the same reason. Arse.

Undeterred, I booked a flight to Bocas Del Toro for the next day and resolved to DO sightseeing/wandering… I find that when there’s a plan for the next step, the present gets a bit easier.

Breakfast at Super Gourmet- a thoroughly restorative muffin and great coffee- Then onwards around the peninsula. Holiday adjustment mode: Slow down, wander. Have another coffee. Wander some more.

My sole concession to a holiday ‘attraction’ was the Panama Canal museum- An impressive edifice over three floors. It’s now quite steeply priced at $10 and a lot of the material is in Spanish however it’s an extremely comprehensive history of the canal, the area and indeed Panamanian history in general. It was certainly eye-opening to learn about the extent of American influence here over the years. My head hurts after a while in any museum, but especially when trying to decode historical facts in Espanol.

Lighthouse lamp

And so the wandering continued. By this point I was starting to become slightly weather-despondent. Temperature was hovering around 30 degrees and humidity 90+%, and yet not a sniff of El Sol. Nonetheless I persevered…

Monument to French pioneers

Then came a quest for Strava notoriety via a coastline run. This only lasted 2.6 miles since I hadn’t quite appreciated the dual additional challenges of heat and dodging Panama’s do-or-die drivers when crossing roads. Still, it all counts, and what a view. Stormy skies and the skyscrapers of the city in the background…

I finished the day with an unusually scenic beer overlooking the sea and then another couple of pints at Nomada Eatery just across the way- Well recommended especially at happy hour, with two pints (Actual pint-shaped pints, the joy!) for the price of one and mixed tacos for a tenner. You can’t miss the open-air bar, it’s right at the entrance to Casco and gets packed later on due to its skyline views. What is it about night and megacities that make them so picturesque?

Casco by night

It was all go back at the hostel. Something had happened in the street and there were hordes of heavily armed cops everywhere. Never quite worked it out, but there did seem to be somewhat of an undercurrent throughout my time there: whilst getting my Uber to the airport I saw one of the smartly-dressed guys who hung around the street corner casually wandering around with a large hatchet over his shoulder.

Anyway, I was out of Dodge… 9am flight up to the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Hasta la playa!

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