The cost of a direct flight from Mexico City to San Juan was almost the same as that of Copa with a layover in Panama City. I even had the option of a 12-hr stopover, landing at around 7 AM and taking off at 7 PM. With a little bit of research, I found out that Panama does allow you to enter the country with a US visa. And so I decided to take the bait, despite having a similar experience with my LA – Dallas – Mexico City last May and not particularly enjoying it. Hey, maybe this time it’ll work if I sleep enough the night before!
I wasn’t able to sleep the night before. That’s disrupting my body clock, dude. The plan was to doze off from 6 PM to 11 PM before leaving for the airport at 12 AM. Didn’t happen! It was when the plane took off at 2:30 AM when I finally felt sleepy, but the three-hour sleep on the plane wasn’t enough, although I was really lucky to get three seats all to myself, which meant a good enough makeshift bed. When we landed in Panama, I was still groggy AF, but hey, we’re already here! Better make the most out of it.
Checking out Wikitravel’s list, I narrowed my options to just three attractions: Panama Viejo, Mirafores Locks, and Casco Viejo. Both Viejos are colonial and should be interesting, while Miraflores Locks is where you can watch ships pass through the Panama Canal. I ruled out that last option despite it being the very factor that distinguishes Panama from the rest of its neighbors in Central America. Sorry, but I just don’t think that I’d enjoy something as monotonous as watching ships pass by a narrow body of water.
The blog I read specifically told me to get on a Corredor Sur Metrobus, because taking anything else will take forever to reach downtown. That blog was absolutely right. The thing about the Metrobus is that you can hop on it but without a Metrocard, you won’t be able to pay for it. They don’t sell the damn card at the airport, which I find really baffling. The technique is to ask a local to pay for you with his card, then pay him back in cash. But it looks like many of the locals that morning didn’t have a card either.
Waiting for half an hour with no significant progress, I decided to hop on a bus that said Albrook, the main bus station of the capital. I didn’t pay for a long layover in this city to wait for a miracle on a bus stop, you know. But before I did, a Japanese guy got in first, waving a dollar bill on his hand. Okay, he’s trying to do the same thing. Welcome to the club! When all the bill and coin waving at the driver didn’t work, the local who got in before us came back and tapped his card twice, paying for us two seemingly clueless tourists.
The Dumb Tourist approach is effective because there’s almost always a local who will be curious enough, or furious enough to pay for you just to get it over with so all of you, including the bus, can move on with your lives. The fare is a meager USD0.25 compared to the USD25 you will have to shell out if you succumb to a taxi ride. Dude, that’s a 99% discount. It’s definitely worth the try. We tried to pay the guy, but he wasn’t having any of it. And so we just showered him with Gracias.
It took two fucking hours to reach Albrook. I interpreted it as the universe’s way of informing us that we can’t have it all. I immediately bought a Metrocard at the station because I don’t really like the idea of begging again on the way back to the airport. The card itself cost USD2, and then I loaded it with USD3 just to make sure that it had enough funds. The surprise of the day is that there is no direct bus to Casco Viejo, which meant having to take a taxi anyway. It’s fine because it was just another USD3, pretty much like an Uber ride.
The highlight of Casco Viejo for me was that area called Vista Panamá. It’s a pedestrian street leading up to the wall which gives you a great view of Panama City’s skyline. Hmmkay, so this is the basis of the Dubai of Latin America tag, eh? That’s cute, but I think the similarity stops there. The view of the skyscrapers neatly lined up on the other side of the bridge was still impressive despite the grey skies. I imagine it would have been a real traffic stopper if it was all sunny and bright. But then again what can we do? Bipolar weather!
Casco Viejo is where the capital was relocated after the original Panama City in Panama Viejo was looted by pirates and consequently razed by its governor back in the late 1600’s. If you want to see the ruins, go to Panama Viejo. If you want to see more colonial architecture, then Casco Viejo is the place to be. Built on a peninsula surrounded by walls, the place has survived and eventually made it to the UNESCO World Heritage list, in tandem with the ruins of its predecessor. Do visit both sites if you have the time.
The style and layout is undeniably Hispanic, similar to that of Havana and Mexico City, which is probably why I was a bit bored. It’s a see-one see-all experience, similar to that of the red and golden temples of Beijing. They all start to look the same after you’ve seen several of them. For Spanish colonial towns, the case is even more so because of the uniform design. If you’ve been to Vigan, then you’re not really missing anything. The area has free WiFi, by the way, but it wasn’t working when I was there.
There is no shortage of Panama hats, restos, and cafes. The weather is humid due to the location at the coast, so wear something comfy. Clueless tourists are not a rarity either; you’ll immediately feel at ease, although Asians are hard to find. I think I was the only one there that day. There are also many plazas with plenty of benches if you get tired. I no longer went to Panama Viejo because full lethargy kicked in at around 12 PM. It’s a good thing I managed to get back at the airport in my semi-unconscious state.
[PANAMA CITY] Dubai of Latin America?
[PANAMA] Budget and Itinerary
[PANAMA] Budget and Itinerary