After our month-long French connection in Montreal and Quebec City, Ramona and I spent the holidays in company of our families in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This included the annual trek my dad, brother, and I make to Lambeau to watch the Packers take on some unworthy opponent (the score was not in our favor this time).
During this time, we returned to Madison for a spell, where Ramona and I were able to reconnect and share time and stories with friends. This also afforded me a few days to catchup with my coworkers in the office, as we stayed nearby in a bed and breakfast along Lake Mendota.
The winter setting in the Midwest offers its fair share of beauty, but the two of us looked forward to our reintroduction to the warm climate of Central America. With friends planning to visit us on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica in February, we decided on visiting Panama for the first time. This would allow us to shuttle across the border into Costa Rica from the south, and join up with them in Puerto Viejo.
Flying from the Twin Cities, we hopped a couple of flights on our way to Panama City, our destination for the first few weeks of the Panamanian adventure. Arriving on Friday just before midnight, and struggling to keep awake enough to direct our cab, we eventually arrived got situated at our accommodations in a high-rise apartment off of Avenida Balboa.
After a full nights sleep, our introduction period to Panama City began. Like on most of our stops we had made and would make throughout the year, the orientation period typically takes a couple of days. This involved evaluating and setting up the work environment in our apartment (determining the typical internet speed and reliability, identifying effective work spaces), becoming acquainted with the surrounding neighborhoods and locations of the essentials (groceries, restaurants, pharmacy), and forming a plan for exploring the city.
The internet situation started out promising when I connected to the Wifi in our apartment and fired up Speedtest on my phone…almost 13 Mbps download speed! Though on average this may not appear to be overly exciting news, this was easily the fastest speed we had encountered in Central America to this point. As a remote worker and big internet user, this seemed a pleasing development. However, when Ramona connected her device, she complained that the internet was so slow that not even a single page would load properly. Speedtest now reported 0.25 Mbps. After some trial and error, it turned out that connecting more than one device was basically untenable with the apartment router. In 2018, with our laptops, iPhones, iPads, and Kindles, that wasn’t good. This began a series of games we played to accomplish some work, such as, “Who Gets the Internet Now?”, “Tether Time”, and “Pool Wifi.”
“Pool Wifi” involved getting a reasonable internet connection by going to the roof of the apartment building, connecting to the Wifi access point for the building, and trying to ignore the sounds and splashes of kids jumping in the pool. At least there was some shaded tables and an outlet to keep our laptops powered, and the router up there worked…swimmingly…with multiple devices connected.
Thus, many days were spent camped out on the roof, alternating between working, taking a quick dip in the pool during a break, or gazing over the skyline and the Panama Bay.
Speaking of that roof, it offered an incredible view of the surrounding skyscrapers. Panama City has some pretty incredible architecture…
…and one ginormous Samsung screen, which was directly across from the main window in our apartment. I’m afraid that now I am very well acquainted with the Samsung Note and all other ads that played on this screen during the day (thankfully, it shut off around bedtime).
Also on the top floor of the building, we made liberal use of the available gas grill to aid in meal preparation for the week, as well as spending time in the adjacent sauna and workout area. A sauna in Central America is not especially common, or frankly that necessary, due to the humidity felt taking a few steps around outside, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. During our time hanging out in the common areas of the apartment complex, we chatted with and befriended numerous permanent or temporary residents, including a recently retired couple from back home in Madison, and a woman and her son from Venezuela.
One last note on the Wifi situation. Our service (Wifi and cable – the latter of which we never really used) went completely kaput one day. I fired up the cable box to check the status of that, only to see a message on the screen indicating that the bill had not been for some time. Later, we discovered overdue notices in the apartment identifying the same issue. We contacted the owner of the apartment, who feigned ignorance and asked if we could reset the router and perform other troubleshooting steps. Eventually, she apparently called the cable company and got them to extend service, without paying the bill…so the same issue crept up again, forcing these two remote workers to continue to play “Tether Time”, and the other aforementioned games.
While managing the work and internet situation, on the second day of our stay, we were surprised in our apartment in the middle of the day with no running water (or precious little). Apparently, the source of this issue is low water pressure, a problem that appears with some regularity across all parts of Panama City. Obviously, it is not clear when it will start, and not clear when the problem will resolve itself. It’s probably not great to be soaped up in the shower when the water stops; it may be much worse to be eating at certain restaurants lacking water pressure, preventing basic cleaning from happening effectively. The tap water itself had a stark, chlorinated taste. Opinions on the tap water in Panama City might run the gamut from, “okay to drink”, “sort of safe to drink”, “only okay for brushing teeth”, or “not safe – boil or buy bottled.” Due to the chemical-infused taste and some stomach discomfort from trying it out, our daily regimen was updated to include boiling large amounts of tap water for an extended period of time, and filling this into plastic bottles placed in the fridge, to maintain our potable water supply.
Obtaining delicious and non-chlorinated food was a simpler task. Within a relatively short walk or cab ride was a variety of restaurants, including many Italian, Indian, Thai, and American (chain) options. Our first weekend took us straight to Solomon’s Deli, for some excellent Canadian poutine and smoked meat flown in from Montreal. Ramona and I also made it over to Buffalo Wild Wings (or B-Dubs, as it is officially called here) for some delicous alitas de pollo, while watching the incredible finish to the Vikings/Saints NFL playoff game with local and expat football fans alike.
Like the comida tipica in Costa Rica, in the eyes of this gringo, I would not claim standard Panamanian fare to be exceptional. There are the normal variations of rice and beans dishes with a protein (chicken, beef, or fish), patacones, and plenty of fresh ceviche.
It was both pleasing and surprising to Ramona and I to see the differences in price between Panama and Costa Rica when it came to shopping for groceries or going out to eat: in short, Panama City felt quite reasonably priced, particularly for a city with nearly a million residents. Compared to several areas of Costa Rica, a beer at the bar is about half the price ($1.50), fresh fruit and produce cost very little, imported products are more fairly valued, and a good meal at a decent Italian restaurant is under 10 American dollars.
Now aside from burning the midnight oil, exercising at the gym, and hanging out in the pool, as we stretched and prepared to step outside our barrio (neighborhood) on the weekends, the top item on our agenda was of course, the Panama Canal.
Even those that are not especially informed about the country of Panama undoubtedly have knowledge of the Panama Canal. The history of the construction, use, and transfer of the canal is obviously an immensely complex topic, which is better served covered by mediums other than this blog. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, we decided to visit the Miraflores Locks, hoping to get some up close history and background of the canal, and frankly, clamoring to see some big boats go through those locks.
Non-Panamanian visitors to these locks pay $15 for a day pass, which provides access to the visitor center and museum, in addition to the observation decks, where typically first thing in the morning (9 AM) or mid-afternoon (2 PM) ships are expected to pass through the locks. There is also a standard gift shop on site, along with an ice cream shop, and a cafe with tables that provide a comfortable view of the locks.
The museum takes about 45 minutes to an hour to peruse. It was certainly a little nationalistic, as was to be expected, and it offered a decent presentation of the history of the canal, from construction, to Panama taking over operations fully from the US at the turn of the century. It was rather amusing to get a glimpse of the software running on Windows XP used to operate the locks from the command center.
At the locks, we found big boats…
…and small boats…
…and tourists. Lots, and lots of tourists. Our limitation of only being able to visit the canal on a weekend was unfortunate in this case. When some of the larger ships entered the locks, the main viewing area immediately became incredibly crowded. We felt packed in like sardines, and then we started to cook, as the premiere lookout posts had subpar coverage from the hot sun. Sweating and feeling claustrophobic, we bailed shortly after viewing the large ship entered the locks. The Panama Canal is a pretty interesting engineering feat, and the history is intriguing. If one visits Panama City, they are probably already planning on checking it out…I’d just recommend doing so during the week if at all possible, and being prepared for large crowds.
On another sunny Saturday, we took advantage of our proximity to the Gulf of Panama to check out the local Mercado de Mariscos, the premiere seafood market in the city.
Following the smell of the sea, we wandered into some tents at the market outside the dock. We entered clearly as outsiders, with tables of fresh-caught fish being cleaned and stacked. This was no Pike Place. This did not seem to be the proper customer-facing market, but rather, where restaurants might purchase their seafood supply. It was busy and hectic and not the appropriate place to snap a photo it didn’t seem. In an adjacent building, the genuine market for customers was available, with fresh, affordable seafood of all types.
As one walks around the back of the market, tourist or not, they will be bombarded and aggressively targeted by servers from the various seafood restaurants behind the market, which is rather annoying. Each restaurant is adjacent to one another, and they do not seem to have much in the way of differentiating factors, so it’s probably okay to pick the one with the least annoying servers. The ceviches and cervezas are cheap and plentiful, making this is pretty common stop for tourists and locals, particularly on the weekend. Eating market-fresh ceviche mixto (shrimp and squid) and drinking a cold Atlas beer while surrounded by the swirling sea breeze made for a refreshing experience, though Ramona and I have had much tastier ceviche elsewhere in our travels.
The market was easily accessible by walking along the Cinta Costera for a couple of miles.
This paved path forms a beautiful stretch along the water for easy use by walkers, runners, and cyclists, with wide, spacious lanes to reduce congestion or potential collisions. There are several small fruit or refreshment stands along the way, as well as some outdoor workout equipment (which as you might expect in this climate, is molten lava hot to the touch). In addition to using this route to navigate to the market, it simply made for a great way to kick off the day with an invigorating jog or walk along the coastline.
In addition to leveraging Cinta Costera to reach the market, it is also a workable (though longer) method of reaching the old colonial neighborhood in Panama City, referred to as Casco Viejo, or Casco Antiguo. Alternatively, Uber rides are super cheap and simple, never costing more than a few bucks from our location.
Casco Viejo is one of the top attractions in Panama City. Generally, the appeal of this neighborhood is to visit the various historical points, look at the old colonial buildings, and take in some good eats or drinks.
Oh, and everybody and their brother, sister, uncle, and nephew is selling Panama hats here (note: these hats are actually originally from Ecuador).
Our research beforehand indicated that parts of this area can get pretty rough, and we typically noticed police officers posted at certain corners, or simply walking their beat in the more troubled areas. It felt like a clear indication that this was the border around which it was probably okay to stay as tourists.
Though there are a lot of cafes and restaurants, particularly of the rooftop variety, we never found a truly excellent place to eat in several visits to Casco Viejo. However, we discovered Pedro Mandinga Rum Bar to be an amazing hangout on a couple of occasions, with creative cocktails and seating right on the edge of the narrow, bustling, brick street. People watching was less an option and more of a requirement at this particular table here, as you can see from the taxi traffic.
There are numerous points of interest to view, including the Palace of the Herons, the Panamanian presidential palace. One (or two) can almost walk directly onto the palace property before eventually being directed away by presidential guards. In addition, there are also a few small museums in or around Casco Viejo. We didn’t have our fill of the museum at the Miraflores locks apparently, and visited the Canal Museum. While housed in a beautiful old building, the museum seemed to cover Panamanian political history more than the canal, and really overdoes it with the hundreds of photos of political leaders in a meeting table or shaking hands (for what it’s worth, most of the content is in Spanish).
Visitors to Casco Viejo can probably walk on their own self-guided tour of the neighborhood, and explore some museums, restaurants, and bars in a single (very long) day, though I recommend splitting up your visits into two or three occasions, if time allows.
In summary, Ramona and I enjoyed the Panama City metropolis, with its epic skyline, broad international flavor, and reasonable cost of living, making Panama City fairly unique in Central America, while still maintaining the friendly charm common to this part of the world. If desiring a vacation to a non-beach location in Central America, I would certainly suggest a visit – you probably don’t need more than a week though.
As our stint in Panama City came to a close, we packed up our luggage and prepared to board a freezing cold, packed, 12 hour overnight bus ride en route to the Bocas del Toro archipelago, while suffering from food poisoning.
But that’s a stomach-churning adventure for another blog post.