Sightseeing in Panama City

Due to the fact that it isn’t possible to fly with pets in the cabin on a weekend, we had a few days to kill until our flight on Monday morning. We decided it was finally time to do some of the touristy things in the city. We had been staying at Alejandro’s for free, on tiny little camping cot beds in an upstairs stock room. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it was free and air conditioned and that was good enough for us. Unfortunately, he was closing up the embassy for the weekend, so we moved across town to another ‘hostel’ for our remaining three nights. This was actually a homestay in one of the skyscraper apartment blocks visible all over town. Clearly it was an enterprise run by the two sons of the family. We turned up outside with bags and cats everywhere. After a while, we managed to locate the right person and get up to the right apartment on the 11th floor. It was a pretty good view up here, and I shared this appreciation with the semi naked father of the family, lying on the couch watching daytime tv. 

“Que linda vista!” I said enthusiastically. 

He glanced up for a moment, grunted, and went back to watching a crocodile devouring an unfortunate bird. We stood there too as we waited as the mum of the family to make up our bed for us. She emerged from the room tugging apologetically at the edges of her pyjamas, a baggy oversize t-shirt, as it threatened to reveal more than it should. We left the nice view by itself and retreated into our room.

While it was certainly not a hostel, it was good enough. We had our own private double with air conditioning again, something of a necessity here. It transpired that other son slept on the sofa, we wondered if we had kicked him out of his room. Throughout the night the apartment reverberated with his incredibly loud snores, it was almost impressive the volume that he achieved. Despite this slightly annoying part, he was a lovely guy. In the morning he happily cooked us a huge breakfast and coffee before we left for our days activities. Being in Panama, it seemed obligatory that we visited the canal. 

The famous canal is a little out of the way, and it was odd to be stranded in a city without transport. While we are used to having a broken van, we always have our bikes. Now we had to rely on taxis. Fortunately Uber was here and it was pretty cheap. We grabbed a cab across town to the viewing point for the locks. We walked up towards the kiosks to buy our tickets when a guy told us that there was no boats for an hour and a half. There used to be a restaurant here, but it’s shut apparently still because of Covid. This means there’s not a lot to do, as it’s just a small museum and viewing platform in the middle of a working lock, you can’t really stroll around. As we had paid to get here too, we decided to sit in the shade and wait, after buying our tickets. It wasn’t too long though, before they opened up and let us all through into the museum. You walk through several floors of the museum, showing facts and photos about the construction of the canal before reaching a viewing platform on the forth floor. From here, you have an unobstructed view of the locks. The giant gates constructed and installed in 1913, are still the originals. Weighing over 700 tonnes each they hold back 100 million litres of water which is refilled naturally from rainwater. Three sets are used to raise up the ships to the level of the canal itself, as this is higher than sea level. To have dug the entire canal out to sea level, would have obviously required much more excavation, the locks were a simpler solution. It truly is a feat of engineering and as we watched the first ship started to approach. 

They expanded the canal back in 2016, allowing ships to pass through another set of locks at the back. The sets of lock we were position over were the original set. The ship approached, drawn towards the lock by two tug boats. At the mouth of the lock itself, the tugs positioned the ship in place so that a set of six trains could attach themselves to the boat and guided it into through lock. 

Once in the lock, the water levels began to drop, the water being released into the sea by a network of pipes below us. The ships needed to pass through two sets of gates before the were returned to sea level and could continue under their own steam to wherever they were heading. It’s not just the engineering and history that make the canal impressive, it costs a minimum of $800 to use for the smallest size boat, up to $300,000 for larger commercial ships. It sounds crazy, but consider the alternative distance, as well as the reputation of sea crossing at Cape Horn.

With that touristy box checked, we headed back to the apartment. We had managed to end up just across the street form Central Cevezeria. We had found out yesterday that they did a rather good happy hour on all their draft beets and we planned to meet the rest of our continuer buddies over there for a drink or two that afternoon. One drink turned into many drinks and we made a large group with over ten people. It was a lovely evening, but as we didn’t have keys to the door of the apartment we made sure we didn’t come back at too much of an unsociable hour. 

With one final day in the city, we had yet to explore the famous old town, Casco Viejo. Our hostel hosts, as well as Alejandro, also recommended that we take a trip to Amador, a small peninsula to the west of the city. We decided to head here first and hire bikes to cycle down to the harbour. Instead of hiring a boring old bike though, we hired whatever this is. 

It’s remarkably slow but the bonus is that you can sit in the shade. The sun here is incredibly strong so we made our leisurely way down the seafront, taking in the level views of the city from across the bay. 

At the moment we stopped for obligatory refreshements, before trundling our way back to the hire shop.

We caught a taxi over to Casco Viejo, taking the old costal road that loops around this entire part of the city. Once he dropped us off we wandered around, exploring a few sights outside, before entering the old town itself. 

Inside the old town the Spanish influence is clear, pretty ornate building with their terraces covered in flowering plants and cute painted stonework. It was a nice place to grab a raspado, and walked around. It was hard to walk around without stopping for some icy drink ever hour or so, it was so hot and humid. 

We had both run out of data, but with only one day left here was no point buying any more. Lee however was dead set on renting an electric scooter. It turns out if you download the app, you get a free ride. There are several free wifi spots around the city and eventually we managed to log in and hire a scooter. They are surprisingly fast, something to be careful off when navigating cobbled streets with tiny wheels. We zipped around to find the mangrove swamp. Then we realised that without wifi I couldn’t end the hire time, in the end we managed to get back to a park and cancel it, fortunately before it cost too much. It wasn’t really worth it here at the mangroves, they were clearly a feature from before and now had become somewhat of a rubbish dump. We rounded off our afternoon with a beer in one of the incredibly expensive bars, before heading back. 

Our flight wasn’t until 11am the following day, so we had plenty of time to pack up our things and make some weird meal that used every last ingredient we had left on us. We set our alarms and checked through our documents. Our host kindly printed out our boarding passes for us and were all set for the next day. Time for a new continent. 

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