A Central American adventure: Panama City

Sometimes in life you have to seek out adventure and do something that terrifies you. If you had told me at the start of the year that in September I would quit a decent job and book myself on a two month trip Central and North America, I probably would have laughed. But here I am, a few days into my trip and loving every second of it.

First stop on my Central American adventure is Panama. I don’t know anyone who has been to the southernmost country in Central America with a population of just over three and a half million, so when I arrived Tocumen International Airport I had no preconceptions or expectations and was ready for everything that lay ahead.

It wasn’t until I read the guidebook on the plane that I realised that the Welsh had already left their mark on Panama City. Pirate Henry Morgan raided the city on January 18, 1671 and the city was burnt to the ground. I made a promise to myself not to ransack the city and leave it in the same state. Seriously, how much chaos and damage could a Welshwoman cause in two days?

Having studied Spanish for a semester at university and lived with Spanish housemates, who would teach me the essential swearwords, I understand most of what’s being said around me. But I lack confidence when I speak and stumble over my words. My brain also adds in some words of other languages I know to fill the gaps, so I find myself adding in French and my native Welsh when trying to make myself understood.

Despite the language barrier I made it into a taxi with a fellow solo traveller, a Canadian who had arrived with the hope of finding work, and we headed into the city. Panamanian taxis are not for those of a nervous disposition. Firstly there don’t seem to be any working seatbelts in the back, then there’s the driving – you weave in and out of traffic without a hint of breaking on roads which have three lanes, narrow back roads and dark country roads without streetlights. I felt more exhausted after my 35 minutes in that taxi than after sitting on a plane for over four hours.

I awoke in my hotel the next day having slept like a baby after the flight from Atlanta and called my mother to reassure her I had arrived. The six hour time difference between Panama City and Dublin means I have to do all my calls, emails and social media checks as soon as I wake up. I sometimes forget about the time difference and send text messages when people should be tucked up in bed back in Dublin.

After a basic breakfast I decided that the most effective way to see the city, and most sensible idea given the short amount of time I had, was to do a city bus tour. I have to say it was worth it because some of Panama City’s sights are some distance from each other. I did the whole tour once to get my bearings after joining the bus in the middle of a busy intersection because I couldn’t find he bus stop.

Panama City is a modern city which is clearly going through change. There are new buildings popping up in every corner and the older apartments which look shabby against the white towerblocks are being demolished. It is a city going through change and is attracting investment from all over the world.

Modern Panama City

After seeing the newer parts of the city, I decided to stop for lunch in Isla Flamenco, a small island which is connected to the mainland by a small road. It was here I realised that this wasn’t the main holiday season as some restaurants looked closed. I walked to nearby Isla Perico and found the Panama Grill where I had juicy grilled chicken and sweet fried plantain which was fresh and full of flavour.

With a full stomach I caught the next bus on its circuit and headed for Panama’s main tourist attraction – the canal. On the road to the visitors centre I wasn’t sure how impressive it would be. It looked very industrial among the jungle that surrounded it. I paid the $5 entry fee and joined the people around the edge of the observation deck which looks over the Miraflores Locks.

Cargo ship at the Miraflores Locks, Panama

I managed to shuffle into a decent spot and watched a South Korean tanker exit the locks. I have to admit I still wasn’t impressed, but then the next tanker in line (yes there was a queue of tankers waiting to go through) arrived and I watched the whole process from start to finish. The locks and the canal are a feat of human skill. How the huge tankers with diverse cargoes that make their way across the globe don’t hit the walls of the locks is beyond me. I panic on narrow roads so how these ships make it through with very little visible space between them and high walls is beyond me. The number of ships and the volume of cargo shows how important the canal is to the maritime industry, and the number of young people in Panama wearing a maritime uniform from the university or one of the training institutes is evidence of its importance to the city.

Leaving the canal I met a friendly Chilean at the bus stop and when we both got off at Casco Viejo we decided to explore the old quarter. We walked the old streets and posed for pictures in front of the sights and smiled at the police who guarded the streets. He headed off to a business dinner so I decided to continue to explore the ancient streets alone. I found a bar with a view of the modern part of the city and sat sipping dark rum writing my thoughts about my day and looked out to the Panama skyline. I remembered the sights, sounds and smells and with a smile I confessed to myself that I’m a little bit smitten with this city.

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