A modern surprise


  • Panama City
  • Panama Canal

We arrived at El Machico hostel, in the CBD area of Panama City, as four exhausted little creatures. It wasn’t long before we connected to wifi and regained some form of civilisation and then ran off to shower and returned as new women (and man!). Beth, Amy, Georgia and Josie also head over to our hostel to shower and pack before their flight to Cuba. The poor girls had another transfer disaster on the way to the city and just wanted to rest!

Lucy and I wondered out to the pharamacy to stock up on everything we needed to tend to our diseases: hydrocortisone cream for bites and heat rash, aloe gel for burnt skin, oily lip balm for burnt lips, antihistamines, rehydration sachets. You name it, we needed it! Upon our return Jacob and Zalie had rested and we were now sharing all our photos and recapping the trip highlights.

Later that evening Jacob, Lucy and I went out to explore the downtown of Panama City and find some food. Where our hostel was located was surrounded by some fabulous architecture of the high rise buildings engulfing us as we walked. It was here I realised how much of a city girl I am and how different Panama City was to what I’d been expecting. It’s a very modern city, almost Asian in feel, a la Singapore or Hong Kong (not that I’ve been but it’s what I imagine from photos!).

We found a huge mall opposite the hard rock hotel and squeezed past the bar outside which was pretty much hosting an outside party since it was a Saturday night. After a quick wonder and some ice cream we head to the food court for Lucy and Jacob. Our hostel was hosting a sushi night and I wasn’t willing to miss out on that!

We settled back down in the sofas when we got back only to learn that the sushi night was no longer happening due to the chefs car breaking down. Food was, and is always, a must! Instead Jacob and I shared a dominos although his illness, which started on day 3 on the boat and was showing no signs of easing up, was proving to make him less hungry, more tired and far less energetic. Poor guy. We all just head to bed shortly after, with Zalie taking herself up about 8pm! We were exhausted and needed rest.

The next morning we had to rush down to breakfast before 9am. Who stops serving breakfast so early!? It didn’t matter too much because we had a big day planned. It was the other there’s only day in the city and we needed to see it all! So at 10am, we hopped in an uber across to Casca Viejo, otherwise known as Panama City’s old town. It’s directly opposite the CBD, separated by a bay of water and quite the juxtaposition to the city centre.

We were dropped close to the waters edge and went exploring. First, we took pictures of the skyline across the water with some old town in the foreground and then went around the streets to check out the traditional buildings, ruins and market stalls in the square. A lot of the buildings used the original facade with a modern interior to keep the old town feel and look more authentic. The market was also fabulous! It was very small but every stall sold excellent merchandise, including some incredible paintings and very talented jewellery makers.

After grabbing coffee at a very funky coffee shop called Nomada Eatery and discovering it was below the hostel of some others on our boat, we hailed a cab to take us to Ancon Hill and vowed to come back at night to the rooftop bars in the old town. The taxi then took us 20 minutes to the bottom of Ancon Hill and we began the ascent at midday. Although just a 30 minute uphill hike, Panama City takes humid to a new level and we’d cleverly arrived at the peak heat of the day! It’s safe to say we were saturated by the summit and understood why everyone else we’d seen on the way up was wearing sports kit.

From the top, Panama City shone in all its glory. I couldn’t get over the difference between old and new city and just loved the skyline. It was great to capture some photos with cool leafy foregrounds too. The flag at the top of the hill is apparently the size of a basketball court and flies 365 days a year, having done so since 1974. This hill was a cool place. Enough said!

We made our descent and waited for yet another taxi to take us to the giant mall in the city centre. This is another Costanera Centre like the one in Chile and is Central America’s largest. We didn’t go in though because we needed the bus terminal right next to it and paid just $0.25 for a bus to the Miraflores locks, i.e. the Panama Canal. You can’t visit Panama City and not see the Canal now, can you?

After paying our $15 entrance (it was proving to be an expensive day), we entered the Canal museum and learnt about the engineering and construction processes of this modern wonder. For example, all dredged material from the lock extension in 2006 was used to build the hydroelectric dam neighbouring the Miraflores locks. Or, Panama’s multicultural population is a result of the 52 nationalities who built the canal over 20 years and produced families during this time. The history was really interesting and the way that locks work, purely using gravity, was very impressive. There was even a simulator where you got to drive a boat through the lock system and it was great fun!

There was a film on the Canal for 10 minutes which we sat and watched and bumped in to Jakob and Dan from the boat too. Then, straight after, we ran out up to the observation deck to grab a great viewing spot as a few boats were expected to make the crossing at 4pm. With ice creams in hand, we watched in wonder as a catamaran, passenger ferry and large carrier ship entered the lock. Behind, in the larger extended lock, was a ginormous ship carrying natural gas which also made the crossing at this time. We couldn’t see the water of that part of the Canal but it was impressive just to see the size of that ship!

We did however get to see the other three ships get lowered the 26m from the lake level to sea level, right in front of us. You’d think it wouldn’t really be that exciting but I guess it’s a novelty and really cool to see such large vessels, especially when this construction is so important to the global economy. So there we had it; the Panama Canal in all its glory!

Outside the centre we tried to negotiate a price back to our hostel with the taxi drivers and settled on $10. After about 10 minutes of driving, the driver then turned around to us and asked us where in Casca Viejo we were going. We told him we’d said the CBD the entire time, never once mentioning old town, and even told him the hostel name when he’d asked at the start of the drive. He refused to accept $10 and an argument in Spanish ensued. It was the first time we’d had any taxi problems on our travels so far and this driver was disgustingly rude. He told us we were crazy, he had 25 years on us all which meant he was better (literal translation of his words) and that we were the type of girls who deserved a smacking from their fathers. The absolute piece of sh*t. We turned up at our hostel fuming. Jacob, who’d been ill in bed all day, had to do his best to calm the three of us down!

Instead, we took out our frustration in the pool and started a game of volleyball with one of the French guys in the hostel. It was just what we needed and very, very funny watching one team struggle in the deeper water. Zalie was flapping around like a sea lion show and I was positively howling at the spectacle. I also took the opportunity to finish Marching Powder so that I could return Lucy’s kindle to her before she left the next morning. A really good read and so much better now that I already had the context and had visited San Pedro prison myself in La Paz.

We made ourselves pretty and then decided to head out for drinks. Zalie had booked flights to join me in Nicaragua for the next two weeks but it was my last night with Luce and her second-to-last night of travelling, so we needed to finish in style! We head over to Casca Viejo and the rooftop of Hotel Tantilo. A couple of gin and tonics later and we’d met Mike and Trev, two New Yorkers and were having a lovely, merry everning. We soon realised how hungry we were and spotted a second, less rowdy rooftop so head over.

At this second bar, Central Rooftop, we ordered a bottle of red wine and a few tapas dishes whilst learning more about our new male friends in this less antisocial environment. There were so interesting – both worked full time but remotely meaning they could travel around the world whilst receiving an income, and had been doing so for the last two years. Mike was also about to start a masters in sustainability so we had a good old environmental chat. The night then had us in fits of laughter hearing about everyone’s stories from the previous New Year, before we were kicked out of the restaurant and sent on our way.

We said goodbye to the boys and ordered an uber home but at the bottom of the stairs bumped in to all the guys from our boat. We’d invited them to the first bar with us and they’d apparently gone but after we’d left. Luckily here they were and keen for more drinks. We cancelled the uber and head inside Picasso bar, the only place we could see that stayed open past midnight on a Sunday night in Panama City’s old town.

The night very quickly escalated. Unsurprising given our party ways out at sea. It wasn’t long before the table was littered with beer bottles and two to three empty tequila shots in front of each of us. By 3am, we were shattered, drunk and ready for bed. I was just seriously happy I didn’t have a morning flight and was yet to pack like the other two!

There were theee extremely sore heads the following morning! Zalie head off early and I then said goodbye to Jacob and Lucy. It was sad to leave Jacob since he’d done the last week and a half with us and was such a great guy, but it was even sadder to leave Luce after such a fabulous three weeks. Luckily I get to see her whenever I want back at home and now we have lots of great travelling stories together too!

I went back to bed after they left me, not waking until midday and feeling extremely ropey. I had no real plans for the day and so after grabbing some food, spent the afternoon just doing various bits of admin and attempting to write some of my paper. I was in bed by 8.30pm that night after packing up my own things for my flight the next day and had thoroughly enjoyed the day of rest that I so required.

My last morning in the city was short but sweet. I’d made a few friends in my room so we sat down to pancake breakfast in the hostel and discussed the horrific terrorist arrack in Manchester that had happened overnight. They told me some travelling stories and I gave hints and tips since they were just beginning their Latin American journeys. And then at 9am my taxi arrived and I head to the airport ready to fly to my last country, Nicaragua.

So, 207 days in to ‘life from a bag’ and I can absolutely say that I love Panama City and all it has to offer. The modern feel and juxtaposition with the old city and liveability of the area just meant I thoroughly enjoyed my stay. Panama, you have been great.

Gabby x


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