We were up before the sun was and downstairs before breakfast was even served. A cab took us all but 5 minutes to Bocas del Toro Isla Colon International Airport (BOC) where we sat and waited with all the other tourists who checked in way too early.
The small plane dashed us to our next destination, Albrook “Marcos A. Gelabert” International Airport (PAC). This airport is conveniently located on the west of the city, near the canal. On arrival, we exited and grabbed a taxi to the canal.
Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
Miraflores is one of three locks making up the canal system. This is also the most touristic of the locks with a complete visitor center, a museum describing the history of the canal, and a 3D movie spectacular!
The French started the canal in 1881 and they eventually waved the white flag. Then the US stepped in and completed the job in 1914. Sounds familiar?
This engineering feat is especially impressive due to the fact that much of the canal’s original lock system is still in use 100 years later. In 1999, the US handed ownership of the canal to Panama as planned. Panama is now working on enlarging the locks to handle more capacity.
After thoroughly exploring the area, we hailed a black cab who strangely changed the rate on us after he heard we were going to the nice part of town. Good try buddy. We got out of the cab to find that we were conveniently at a bus station. So we took the first bus and headed towards town. The bus took us to the bus terminal, where we hailed another taxi. This time it was a real one with a meter.
Manrey Hotel Group
We went into the modern high-rise oceanfront of Panama city to check into our boutique hotel. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we went up to check out the rooftop pool. They were clearing up a Diesel event at the time, but that didn’t stop us from getting a bucket of beers and lounging in the pool!
After our drinks, we changed in our room before setting out. The hotel van took us to our first sightseeing stop.
The Old City (Casco Viejo)
This historic area built in 1671 is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking through the cobblestone streets you are transported to another time with rich architectural designs and churches at every corner. Unfortunately there was a lot of construction during our visit for their redevelopment project and it was pretty empty. Most of the people around were either tourists or served tourists.
We covered the area quite quickly as we checked off the points of interest.
While exploring I was also on the lookout for a great TOC (T-Shirt of Country). Failing to find one, we ventured further and further from the touristy old city on a tip from a hawker promising a shop with more T-shirts than the we could handle. We passed a square full of police vehicles and officers sitting and having a coffee. That was the threshold, separating the touristy from the real Panama. We went into a few shops in search of this ultimate tourist T-shirt store but decided to give up as people were eyeing us strangely. We tried to leave but Pio Pio, a fried chicken joint, pulled us back in.
Now this is were it got kind of crazy. While in line to place our order, we suddenly hear two loud “bang”s. I thought at first that it was firecrackers, but when I saw all the locals run up to the door to see, I knew that it wasn’t. Their ears were more attuned to the sound of gunfire. A woman ran out of the store with her hands covering her face. Obviously shaken and in tears, she tried to call someone from the pay phone. Meanwhile, a large crowd gathers TOWARDS the store where the shots rang from. I would have thought that people would flee in the opposite direction. A heavily body armored police officer also runs into the store, then ran out yelling something on this shoulder-mic and disappeared. A teenager slung on the shoulder of a lady emerged limping to the edge of the street to get a cab. The crowd was huge at this point. He gets into a cab and they drive away. Bill and I were both pretty shocked. A man mutters something about a robbery and warns us to leave, pointing at my camera.
I think that’s our cue.
We walk back, passed the police enclave and into the safety of the tourist zone.
Having seen enough of Casco Veijo, we jumped into a taxi and headed to the other part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. I did find that T-shirt before leaving.
The original Panama city was founded in 1519. The city grew but was destroyed by fire and then the center was moved to its current location. Now the ruins are an eerie outline of a Panama that once was.
We finished the visit with a stop in a Chinese grocery to get some fluids. The lady told me that there were many Chinese in the area. Getting another taxi, we went back to the hotel to clean up before dinner.
Restaurante Las Tinajas
Our hotel recommended this restaurant serving traditional food with a Panamanian dancing show. It was a short walk away and they seated us as soon as we arrived. We seemed to be there a bit early as the restaurant was still empty, so we got some great seats. The show was fun and gave an introduction into their cultural dances and music.
After dinner, we headed back to the hotel and were considering just passing out since we had to wake up early. The next day we were flying out early from Tocumen International Airport (PTY) to Newark. But we had to celebrate the last night of our trip!
We went up to the rooftop bar, which transformed into an open-air nightclub (no wonder the pool is open till so late). With a table, beers, and a hookah, we were set for the night. Surrounded by sexy people and a glowing pool, we had the perfect atmosphere to drink, reminisce, and celebrate our journey that we both agreed had too quickly come to an end.
The area’s culture, natural beauty, magnificent landscapes, Mayan ruins, historic cities, and tasty cuisine has me yearning to come back to explore some more.
But first, the rest of the world.