We woke up with one goal in mind, pack as much stuff in to one day as possible. We only had a few short hours here, and we really wanted to make the most of it. But first, I was dead set on getting a classic Central American breakfast.
When we were in Costa Rica a few years ago, I had gotten used to rice and beans for breakfast every morning. They also have a side of plantains and mangos, pineapple or papaya. This was the classic Central American breakfast I wanted to recreate. We found a nice traditional Panamanian restaurant right around the corner. The service was great and the food was amazing. Panama City is an interesting place. The fancy skyscrapers make you feel like you are in Miami but then once you get down at street level, it starts to feel more like a third world country. This was fine with us because we could get some authentic food at a really reasonable price. You could get a very good breakfast here for under 5 dollars.
After grabbing a quick breakfast, we scrambled around the busy streets to find a cab. After a few minutes of searching, a guy and a shared a look and he gestured me over. We walked across two lanes of traffic to get to him, and negotiated the rates down as we were getting in. As it turns out, this cab driver was the perfect tour guide for us because he was an American that had been living in Panama for the past 7 years. He not only knew a lot about the country, but he knew all the ways in which it was different from the U.S. He was taking us to the Panama Canal, one of the most well known landmarks in Panama. On the way over, he taught us a bit about the history of the Canal. The neighborhoods around it were filled with American military families because the U.S occupied the canal for much of the 20th century. The canal is such an important part of world trade, because shipments can be sent from Asia to the East coast of the United States in 15 days rather than 45.
“on the right there is the Mormon church with a door made of solid gold” he said “and on the left, money laundering!” He pointed to a seemingly brand new building with moving boxes inside. “that building looks like it has been there for a few months right? It’s actually been there for over 7 years.” As it turns out, Panama has a problem with money laundering, and this business was able to claim income off of a building that clearly hadn’t been used.
As we headed out of the building, he explained to us something very cool about Panama City. Apparently, built up although it is, Panama City ends very abruptly. As soon as you get out of the city, you are already right in the jungle. The city doesn’t sprawl that much, and it is completely surrounded by jungle. I thought this was a cool idea and a reminder how the city was only just a tiny part of a much larger ecosystem. Eventually we pulled up to the canal and we arranged a deal with our driver. We would pay him for the day and then he would be our driver. Of course we did not pay him upfront because there was no way to guarantee his return, but we were going to meet him right outside the Miraflores Lock.
Ironically, the main lock of the Panama Canal shared a name with the part of Lima we had spent the last 2 days in. We paid the entrance fee and walked into the museum. The entrance fee to see the canal was $15, which is reasonable considering that the Panama Canal is on a lot of people’s bucket lists. I will say that if you are going to see the museum, it is a bit of a disappointment. You can tell the museum is kind of an afterthought. If you are fluent in Spanish, perhaps it is worth staying for the 45-minute documentary about the construction of the canal, but we had neither the time nor the vocabulary for that. As soon as we got there, we saw a huge container ship leaving for Barcelona. It was kind of cool to see something so large that would be halfway across the world in only about 2 weeks. If you have a few days in Panama City, I would recommend you time your visit to see a few ships go through the locks. They come at very specific times of the day and we were only able to see one ship while we were there.
We breezed through the museum and headed outside to wait for our cab driver. We said we would meet him there at 10:00 and it was 10:05. We had no time to waste so we hopped in another cab to go over to Casco Viejo. Tim, if you’re reading this, we didn’t mean to ditch you, we just had very limited time and a lot of things to see!
The cab was about $7 for a half an hour drive. This is one of the cheaper cabs I’ve taken, and I really don’t know how they make money. A lot of cabs will seem expensive at first, but they have a lot of room to drop the cost so be sure you negotiate. Another thing I would recommend is that you get a cab with seatbelts. I would say that most cabs do not have seatbelts, and the drivers here don’t seem to care but this is one of the things I do take very seriously. I really want everyone to be safe when you travel, and this is one of the places you don’t really want to compromise (in my opinion).
We arrived in the main square of Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City. This town is unlike any other in the world. If you look out onto the water, in front of you will be the luxuriously modern skyline of Panama City, and behind you will be the traditional colorful architecture you might think would be more at home in Havana. This area is filled with beautiful scenery, cozy coffee shops and historical ruins. This whole area has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are also a few city squares that are just breathtaking! I would recommend taking a little stroll down Paseo de Las Bovedas, for some beautiful views across the water. The prices here are on the steeper side, but it may be worth it to eat here because the views are amazing.
We decided to just head back to our place and get some food nearby. We wanted to allow plenty of time to get to the airport and swim in our rooftop pool. We had some of the best views in the city, and here we could really see the stark contrast between city and jungle. The rooftop area of our hotel was awesome. They had a pool, a bunch of lounge chairs and even a bar/restaurant up there. We didn’t have time to fully enjoy all of the amenities, but at least we got to enjoy the pool and the beautiful 360 degree views of the city.
As I sat in the pool, looking out onto the skyline and the dense jungle beyond, I thought about how lucky I was for this life I’ve been given. Just yesterday I was surfing in Lima and the day before that I was in the Amazon Rainforest. Only A week earlier I got to see one of the seven wonders of the world and before that I was exposed to a rich and diverse culture in Cusco and Lima. This month was so packed with adventures already, and in only a few days I would be flying out to Chicago for another week full of summer fun. It was such a successful trip for us, and we got to see and do just about everything on our list. Now, the only thing left to do was to go back home.
We got back home at around midnight on the fourth of July, and a few late fireworks displays made for the perfect welcome back to the U.S. It was great to be home, particularly on this special holiday.
Thank you guys so much for sharing this journey with me. I had so much fun in Peru and almost as much fun reliving the memories through my blogs. If I have inspired even one of you to take a trip to this amazing country, this whole thing will have been a success. Enjoy your travels everyone!