Panama City: Final wanderings

I always have a bit of a problem with returning to the capital city, or indeed the origin of my homeward flight, since it feels like the holiday has ended there, and you’re already in the departure lounge. Weighed up against this though is the risk of dovetailing connections too closely and then missing out on the really expensive portion of the trip- AeroMexico wouldn’t have given a stuff about cows on the runway in David if I’d pitched up late, and I’d have been staring down the thick end of a grand to get home on time for work.

So, I arrived back on Friday evening, prior to my Sunday afternoon flight. I’d chosen to return to Magnolia Inn for this night at least, since it’s handy for Albrook airport as well as my projected Saturday wanderings. And hey, it really isn’t a bad place to stay. My Uber driver from the airport was Yaribeth, a typically chatty Panamanian woman who’d recently returned from learning English in the UK and who was now teaching at a public school here. A great journey, all told.

Uber in Panama has two options- UberX and UberX English, the latter if you really can’t speak any Spanish and need to communicate your destination. I’d love to see a third option- UberX silent- with some sort of impenetrable rear compartment. This could also work for barbers too- I’d definitely pay for a “Just cut my hair and don’t chat to me, alright?” option. It’s not that I always hate talking, just sometimes that making small talk makes my teeth itch a little.

Hey, this is all being somewhat churlish. My multiple cab rides so far have been brilliant conversational Spanish practice. I’ve met Venezuelans, Bolivians, Panamanians of all ages and have discussed everything from the state of the nation to which country has the hottest women. Proper cab chat, obvio.

The next morning I was up and out by 8am with a clear plan to do all of the Panama City stuff that I hadn’t had a chance to so far. Well, nearly all- A trip on the Panama Canal railroad will just have to wait until next time since it only runs Mon-Fri. Sadly I just couldn’t fit this in given the timetable. It certainly wouldn’t have been worth delaying beach time for a day to do this before leaving to Bocas.

First stop was the well-recommended Super Gourmet on Calle 6 in Casco Viejo- Great breakfast and coffee. Then straight over to the Miraflores Locks visitor centre via Uber. My driver this morning, Jorge, gave me a few interesting insights on the history of the canal zone and how it’s fared since the gringos have departed. Casco Viejo to the visitor centre: $5.20

A trip to Panama really, really wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the engineering marvel which bisects it and connects two seas. Throughout my time in Panama I would hear, see and discuss things about the canal, which has recently undergone a significant expansion to allow it to host larger container ships. At present you can’t visit the new locks, however according to my second cabby of the day a new visitor centre is under construction. 

Top Miraflores locks tips

  • Get there early. The visitor centre is open from 8am most days. Avoid weekends if you can.
  • Pick a spot on the viewing platforms when a ship is about to pass the locks and stick to it. The sides tend to be less crowded. 
  • There’s wifi, however it’s a bit flaky. If you’re relying on it to line up your next stop (IE Uber) then I’d recommend pre-booking via the Uber app. If there’s anywhere you’re going to get Gringoed on your walk-up taxi fare, it’s here.

Miraflores is one of three major sets of locks on the canal, to allow ships to rise up to the level of Gatun lake and then back down to the Pacific or Caribbean. These locks are predictably huge, with a maximum allowable width of around 35 metres. There’s a great 4 storey visitor centre which overlooks the lock, with an informative interactive museum section charting the canal’s chequered history. Entrance is $15 for adults. Supposedly the best times for transits are in the mornings (9-11am) and afternoons (3-5pm)

Brilliant ship simulator in the centre. Sadly you couldn’t deliberately crash it, I tried- Obvio.

Maritime Control Centre mockup

During my time there I got to see two ships transit the locks: The Ninghai, a Singaporean bulk carrier, and the MV Celebrity Infinity, a US cruise ship. You can take tours from Panama City during which you traverse the locks in small boats (as pictured below) however they’re fairly pricey for what I suspect is a fairly limited experience with lots of waiting- Passing the locks is not a rapid process.  

MV Celebrity Infinity approaches the locks.

Panama is one of the few places in the world whereby Captains are required to relinquish control to experienced pilots. They, along with tugboats, manoeuvre the vessel into the mouth of the locks, from where it is tethered to several small locomotives running the length of the lock on tracks.

Infinity moving into position, tugs attached

Infinity moving through the locks, front two tugs on each side visible.

Gratuitous tug shots 

Geek curiosity appropriately sated, I found a sliver of Wifi to line up the second Uber of the day, down to the Amador Causeway and the world-renowned Biomuseo. Another good journey, Miraflores Locks to Biomuseo: $5.80. Another chat, this time about crumbling hillsides and the perils of subsistence agriculture. Every day’s a Spanish school day. It’s a Frank Gehry-designed building however the contents are the real treat- An extremely well curated and designed history of Panama’s wildlife, and its unique position as a continental ‘bridge’. Or ‘Isthmus’ if we’re standing on ceremony.

Biomuseo. Credit: New York Times

Looking back at the city from Biomuseo.

Main hall

You see, Panama wasn’t always there, and the joining of South and North America several millennia ago resulted in some huge evolutionary leaps. When you manage to fight off the children there are some great interactive displays showing this.

‘If Panama had not existed, the world would be very different’ 

Stuff

Entrance is $18, and it’s well worth it. All exhibits are bilingual, and there are the kind of enthusiastic, smiley staff on hand explaining things which enhances the whole experience. There’s also a pretty decent cafe there. I eventually dragged myself off and outside, mindful of the need to soak up as many last minute sunshiney rays as possible. 

A great new feature of the Uber app is that you can schedule rides. So even if you haven’t got mobile service, you can pre-book from wifi areas. This was exactly what I’d been banking on, so I decided to walk up the Causeway and schedule a pickup for a couple of hours later to get back to Casco Viejo. An element of guesswork, but it turned out alright.

My next destination was a Lonely Planet recommendation, a decidedly lo-fi but worthy nature reserve affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute, who have a significant research presence here in Panama City. It’s tucked away behind car parks and the flashier end of the Causeway, and lacks the immediate appeal of the Biomuseo.

Occupying a peninsula on the peninsula, Punta Culebra has a range of environments and artificial habitats housing their various reptilian charges, and a pristine beach.

What really makes this place though is the staff. It’s one of those low-key attractions that you almost feel sorry for, being one of the few visitors, but this makes the experience all the sweeter, almost like a private tour. The staff are all university students on their days off, with an infectious passion for their ‘inmates’. Most of the information was in English and Spanish, and they do offer to explain things in either language, however I opted for the latter to get in a bit more practice. And having excelled at “Boat, harbour and seafaring” words in Galapagos, it couldn’t hurt to add another obscure set of ‘biology and sealife’ words to the arsenal.

The first stop on my wander was a private tour of the frog house. I definitely tried my absolute best to keep up, however there are only so many features of very similar little frogs that you can genuinely pick up on. Most of them we struggled to see. After a while I started to humour her when I simply couldn’t pick out the little bugger behind a twig.

Particularly funky/deadly pair of froggos

Onwards to some shaded outdoor tanks where you can actually stroke starfish! Bonkers. Another lovely university student to explain the intricacies. I did ask her if she ever banned starfish affection, and apparently she did if there were loads of visitors in a row. I felt privileged. 

My scaly friend

On I wondered to the fish house. These are the sort of creatures you definitely shouldn’t be stroking, unless you have a particular yen for ‘painful death by marine neurotoxins’. My host here wasn’t very friendly, and didn’t really know much about the fish. In fact the tour was pretty much ‘here is a fish. It lives in the Pacific’ and then ‘here is a fish, it lives in the Caribbean’. Ho hum. I was pretty much done with my Spanish marine biology vocabulary practice by now in any case.

I’m not sure if the Smithsonian ever gets busy, it was quite an odd experience being ‘passed on’ to the next member of staff via radio as I walked around. It’s definitely worth a visit though- Only a few bucks and a nice stopoff on a wander around the Amador Causeway.

Relaxed, nonchalant, SUPER DEADLY

Anyhow, it was nearly pre-booked Uber time, so I headed to the road to await my ride. The only drawback of booking in advance and not having data connection is that you haven’t got a clue what car will turn up, so you end up approaching every Kia parked up and interrogating them. A good method if you’re a nervous sort is to get them to confirm your name. 

Back then to Casco Viejo to have a bit of lunch and pick up my bags. I’d had a great chat with some English expats at the Magnolia Inn the previous evening who had recommended a bit of a ‘secret dining’ experience nearby. Sadly by the time I found it, the restaurant had already closed, however a late lunch was on the cards instead…

Just off Avenida A onto Calle 5a oeste, and behind ‘Laboratorio’ restaurant you’ll find a humble, largely unmarked entrance. And then you come inside to an even more humble menu board. A somewhat stern lady behind the counter takes your order and payment and gives you a ticket. In hindsight, a golden ticket far superior to even the Wonka factory.

Into the dining area, and you’ll see the kitchen hard at work. No reservations, just grab a table or pull up a stool to the bar. The kind of informal dining arrangement that South and Central America do so well. And a real mixed crowd of a few (brave or well-informed) tourists, young Panamanians and families.

Fonda Lo Que Hay is actually run as a novel project by Don Jose, a brilliant young Panamanian chef whose main venture is the multi award-winning and very upscale restaurant Donde Jose in Casco Viejo. He runs Lo Que Hay during the day (hence the slightly truncated opening hours) before skippering Donde Jose at night. This place is also training the next generation of young locals in the show kitchen.

Definitely the best food I had in Panama, so much so, in fact, that I came back half an hour later for seconds. To start, croquettes of cod on a base of ceviche langoustine, marinated in lime and then flash frozen. Historic. Biblical. Less than 10 bucks.

On my return I went for “Concolon” with a chicken curry sauce underneath. Simply incredible, and virtually indescribable. A sort of crispy rice tortilla (slightly chewy on the inside) and then a delightfully spicy kick of curry. Again, not much more than 10 bucks. 

On my second visit Don Jose noted that I’d come back for seconds, and we chatted about the food. A really warm, genuinely nice guy who spent some of his career in North America. He seemed to really take pleasure from seeing normal people having a good time, and enjoying the amazing food on offer.

Now uncomfortably full, but very happy that I’d fully explored Don Jose’s menu, I collected my bags and made my way to the final Uber of the day, over towards the modern centre of Panama City. For my final night I always like to try to stay somewhere nice, to leave the holiday on a real high note. This is extremely do-able in Panama City- There are scores of high-end hotels and prices are very reasonable. 

I stayed at the Best Western Panama Zen hotel, an extremely good deal for the price. A superior room and breakfast cost me the princely sum of $45 via Booking.com.

The biggest bed in the world, and a beautiful pool on the roof. Very well recommended, I’d have appreciated another day or so lounging around there. It was also nice to be in a slightly more modern area of Panama City to stock up on a few last-minute gifts and more importantly, a few bags of coffee beans…

And then I was off. Mid-afternoon flight to Mexico City, slightly interminable 6 hour layover (Definitely don’t bother with the Aeromar lounge, it was passable on the way out however completely pointless on the way back due to having no snacks and incredibly surly staff who couldn’t wait to close up/shoo me out (30 minutes early). It has to be said that I wasn’t enthused with a further 4hr layover at Schiphol, it was lucky that this was an extremely cheap return flight however multiple stops and long stopovers really aren’t fun.

Safely home 32hrs after leaving my hotel in Panama, and up for work 5hrs later. Squeezing such an amazing holiday into 13 days of leave was always going to have some compromises.

Panama was a blast. I’d definitely come back to clear up some of the sights I missed. So much amazing nature and so many incredible beaches crammed into a tiny land bridge. What a place!

Interestingly, whilst the wild flora and fauna of Panama had singularly failed to kill or injure me during my time there, it took less than a week back at work in clean, civilised England to pick up an infection from a cut which subsequently hospitalised me for several days and required a large hole cut in my wrist to resolve.

Sometimes, it’s just safer to hit the road and stay there.

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