We left the fresh mountain air of Quito, Ecuador and headed North by airplane to Central America landing in Panama City, Panama. To avoid the onslaught of the taxi drivers and haggling wars we went with an Uber ride. Aside from needing WIFI to access the Uber app, which meant staying close to the terminal, it worked like a charm.
We drove to Ciudad del Saber (the City of Knowledge), an old US military base called Fort Clayton. Today, it houses a University, several companies including Copa Airlines and is the central hub for the United Nations in Central and South America.
Holiday Inn Panama Canal
We checked into the Holiday Inn which is very nice and modern. The rooms were a good size and bonus alert!: they have an awesome happy hour every day.
The menu at the Holiday Inn Panama Canal restaurant was limited but the dishes were fantastic. Given a larger menu selection, we would have opted for the same meal multiple times it was that good. Ben was particularly happy with the hamburger option, though we put limits on him. Poor kid.
The Allbrook Mall
The hotel provides a complimentary shuttle to the Allbrook mall which was about a 10 minute drive. The mall is gigantic. Gigantic! Far too big, with multiple stores of every. It was only natural to stop for an ice cream break.
Taking the bus
The two German girls we spoke with on the ‘deep Amazon’ tour in Ecuador described their horrible experience taking the bus (or trying to) in Panama but we read it was cheap and easy once you got the hang of it. You be the judge …
No ticket for you
We lined up at the kiosk in the bus terminal area to purchase a bus card and were firmly told to go away from the woman at the desk (aka Soup Nazi from Seinfeld). A gentlemen who spoke English offered to help and said that we should be able to get a card from the kiosk. We lined up again and this time we were told (No CARD for YOU!) to go to the second floor in a very unfriendly way. We speculated optimistically that she just didn’t have any cards to sell.
Of course you can have a card
On the second floor we had success and were able to get the card and add money onto it as well. It cost $10USD – $2 for the card and $8 for rides. It worked! Oh and this lady selling the cards was very friendly!!
How do we take the bus?
Now we just needed to figure out the voodoo of the bus map. Google maps helps but it is not accurate as the bus pick-up/drop-off locations seem to change, particularly at the larger terminals. We went to the Old Quarter for the day and quickly found the sign for the return trip bus stop. When we returned hours later, a transit official told us that it was not the right stop and that we had to go down the street. A scam? That’s what we thought because the signage was pretty clear. Still dubious, we trusted our instincts and her and walked to the street she recommended. Yep, she was right! Our bus was right where she said it would be although there was not a bit of signage.
To take the bus you tap your card for each person that is in your party and voila they are in. The ride is based on zones and typically $0.25USD. A pro-tip: If you tap again on exit you get one fare back.
Casco Viejo (old Quarter)
We took the bus to the Old Quarter which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is only four avenues wide and up until a few years ago was known for gang violence. Today it is prime real estate and in full renovation gear with many buildings already repaired to their former Colonial glory.
Plaza de Francia
The French began construction of the Panama Canal in 1881 and stopped in 1899 after several cost overruns and a high human toll. The French owned company finally had to file bankruptcy. 22,000 workers died during this period primarily from malaria and yellow fever. The rooster is a symbol of France.
The Panama Canal
According to Ben, the Canal is 77 km long connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and saves marine vessels 12, 668 km of travel around the southern tip of the continent. The United States planned on a similar canal going through Nicaragua around the same time as the French construction of the Canal. When the French company went bankrupt the United States entered into negotiations with Colombia (which included Panama at that time) to take over the Canal. The deal went sour so the United States bargained with the Panamanian separatists which gave the United States a 99 year exclusive control of the Canal, including its security. Panama declared independence in 1903 thanks primarily to the US blockade against Colombia.
The Canal Today
The canal consists of three sets of locks (Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun) and construction by the United States started in 1904 and was completed in 1914. An additional set of locks/lanes was built between 2006 and 2016 to accommodate the fleet of larger container vessels/cruise ships.
We visited the Miraflores Locks visitor centre which focuses on the original locks. It provided good insight into the history of the Canal with a video and an excellent museum.
Another item struck off the Bucket List
I never imagined the Panama Canal as being on my bucket list but after visiting the Locks and seeing the ships passing through, I now have added a physical trip through the Locks on a boat. We met a hitchhiker in Nicaragua who acted as a deck hand for the ropes and that solidified my desire. Just to be clear, I am not interested in the cornucopia of drugs that he also enjoyed while hitch hiking in South and Central America.
I do highly recommend a visit to the Panama Canal. The weather was extremely warm and the people incredibly friendly. Oh and the Holiday Inn has Happy Hour!!