Panama City - Pandemonium with the Panamanians


The sign says it all

A couple of months back we splashed down in Panama City. Dom was competing in a 70.3 (triathlete short hand for a half iron man: 1.2 mile swim + 56 mile bike ride + 13.1 mile run = 70.3 miles). I have to take off my (Panama) hat to these competitors, it’s a huge undertaking and a very impressive feat. Dom is very modest about them and is almost embarrassed to tell people (he just does it for the buzz not the bragging rights). However, there are A LOT of gombeens who rock up to these things plastered in lyrca and expensive gadgets, who ponce around the hotel hosting the tri,and shout things like “I’m gonna rip this thing APART, man, YEAH!, I’m gonna tear it up and strip it DOOOWN, I’m gonna SMASH it and CRUSH it, BOO YA!”. I can’t tell if they are making a Thai curry or going for a run! Eeeeejits.

Thoughts of hugging me kept Dom going during the tri

It was a pretty cool location for the race, although hard going, as a spectator I had to move about three times to keep pace with the man selling ice creams. I’m not gonna lie it was tough, I even got brain freeze from a cornetto. But ya know what, I didn’t complain, the good ones don’t. The tri folks had it much easier, they dodged tankers as they swam in the Panama Canal, biked from North to South America and back (across the Bridge of the Americas which spans the americas as the name suggests) and finished up with a half marathon in 100 degree heat. BUT none of them had to fight tooth and nail for a sliver of shade under a palm tree, just sayin.

Traditional Panamanian dress on the right

Panama city kinda had a Miami vibe, but with an afro feel (if that makes sense), when I landed my mobile phone provider even announced “welcome to the west indies” (erm, okay). It isn’t that big a city and is a playground for playboys. High rise hotels and casinos are propped up by wheeler dealers and women with skirts of a questionable hem length!

A bath or a bed, you decide
Our crash pad was the Trump Tower hotel, it’s tries very hard to be sleek and chic with good restaurants and fancy rooms with the bathtub in the middle of the bedroom (janniemac, ya wouldn’t see that back in Ireland now, a bathtub in the middle of the bleeeeedin bedroom?? sure, that would cause a fierce mess now altogether). The hotel had apartments for permanent residences so while sitting by the hotel pool this local Panamanian couple struck up a conversation. She was perfectly nice but you could tell he was looking for an angle to network or see if we’d invest in his ‘import/export’ business. I am suspicious of most strangers I meet, I know some people say strangers are friends you haven’t met yet, I think strangers are one letter away from being stranglers. By talking a lot and saying nothing we left them to pounce on a passing American who seemed delighted to meet them and invited them to dinner (maybe they were friends we hadn’t met yet... nah, probably stranglers).

Screw you!

I liked Panama City, it’s got that usual Latin America electricity in the air. The city has old and new parts, the old town is very quaint and lots of places for authentic local cuisine. The new town tries to be flash with the skyscraper hotels and casinos, but there are some architecturally innovative buildings which catch you by surprise and have you smacking into lampposts as you strain to take a photo. There is one twisted corkscrew building which isn’t a museum or whacky point of interest, it just houses regular offices. Give the architecture back to the people, I like it.

View of the new town from the old town

If you just want to hang by the pool or beach (outside of the city as no beaches in the city itself), there are plenty of American and Canadians doing just that. In fact, there were many US, Canadian and British ex pats living in the condominiums adjunct to the hotels. According to a friendly older couple from Tennessee they bought a condo in Panama cos the weather is always good and it’s easy enough to get residency if you invest money. I did feel a little sorry for the older southern woman (on various levels) when she grabbed my arm and leaned in to say “Sweetie, nobody here speaks English, I don’t know what anyone is saying”. Oh dear!

Interestingly the currency in Panama is the almighty US dollar and watch out they are fond of it, I was considerably short changed on more than one occasion (even in the gift shop of a certain hotel). They call their (adopted) currency the ‘balboa’ named after the Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa who founded the first European settlement in Panama in the 1500s. The reason the Panamanians use USD is because they don’t have a central bank (they might be on to something). Given their use of the dollar, plus flexible tax rates and their position between Central and South America they are seen by the international community as a banking centre (hhmm, explains the casinos and playboys).

As well as not having a currency, Panamanians also decided they didn’t want an army (peace out, dude). This was after the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega was ousted from power in 1989 following a US led invasion of Panama.

As a San Franciscan (can I say that? I know you have to be in New York ten years to qualify as a New Yorker, it’s the law... or else someone said it on a TV show, same diff), anyway, as a (10 month) resident of San Francisco I was delighted to learn that during the 1920s and 30s architects from SF were brought down to Panama City to design houses, which still stand today. Go Giants! (I’m not a baseball fan but a SF shout out of some description seemed appropriate).

Now on to the bit that everyone wants to know about.... the canal. A tourist bus will bring you there but keep an eye on opening times, the bus will happily bring you there and then announce the museum is in fact closed. It’s an impressive sight to behold. It was built to allow ships to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific without going around Cape Horn. The canal operators work out how much it would cost for your ship, per cubic foot, to go the long way around the bottom of the continent then they take a percent of that as the charge to use the canal. The canal itself doesn’t actually make any noise as it works on the premise of natural gravity not loud motors or lines of groaning slaves playing a tug of war with the current (hey, I didn’t know what to expect, that could have been how it operated).

If anyone gives a fiddlers, approx 14,000 ships go through the canal every year. The canal used to be US owned but following a treaty set out by Jimmy Carter in the 70s it’s now owned by the Panamanian government.

Amador Causeway

There is a breathtaking bike ride you can do along the Amador Causeway which brings you to the Isla Flemenco. From the marina there you can check out the flash yachts and let the city’s cinematic skyline melt into the sunset as you eat at one of the many restaurants. It’s also where a lot of the city’s nightlife kicks off.

If you’re not into biking, eating, or nightlife-ing (frankly, who is?! what a horrible trifecta, I have an image in my head of a perspiring tourist clad in pink cycling shorts, slipping off their stool as they scoff prawns and drool over boats they’ll never own, then they drift onto the dancefloor, the pink of their lycra blending into their sunburn as they heave and roll to Dancing Queen), so, if you’re NOT doing all of that at once, you still need to head to the Amador Causeway. Why? Because it’s the perfect vantage point to watch the sun set over the Atlantic and rise over the Pacific. Yes, that would involve sleeping on the side of the road, but it would be awesome. Panama is the only country in the world where you can witness this cross ocean sunset/sunrise, it’s got something to do with it’s co-ordinates.

Sunset over the ocean

To be serious for a minute and make a social comment on the country, they are taking education very seriously with a focus on keeping the kids in school, it will be a country to stick on your watch list. Education used to be 30 minute classes, 180 days a year. Now schools sit for 210 days a year, all schools have free wifi, free books and backpacks and in the last two years of school all the students are given laptops. I didn’t google this, Panamanian tour guides tell you this, they are (rightly) very proud.

I don’t see myself going back to Panama but seeing the world changing man made wonder that is the Panama Canal was definitely something I’ll eek out on my deathbed. (Wow, sounds like my last moments are gonna be riveting!).

After the heat of Central America, we had to do something totally different...hhhmm, skiing in Whistler fits the bill.

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  1. That comment about eejits around the hotel is (unfortunately) very true. This time I heard someone ask another competitor about their night's sleep, to which he replied, "Oh you don't SLEEP the night before a race" -as if it was the most serious thing in the world, "Oh you don't PUSH the nuclear missile button". ha!

  2. "Strangers just one letter away from stranglers"....brilliant line and my sentiments exactly!.... Fascinating place....

  3. You made such an interesting piece to read, giving every subject enlightenment for us to gain knowledge. Thanks for sharing the such information with us to read this... gustazos panama


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