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  • Day80

    Panama City, Panamá

    April 5, 2017 in Panama ⋅ 🌙 30 °C

    The end of the road. Mike and I have reached the southern most point and the last stop for us on this trip. Where does the time go?! Panama City is completely different from anywhere else we have been in Central America, but then the city alone contrasts even itself with its many dimensions.

    We're back in the company of skyscrapers, wealth, traffic and genuinely just a full fledged city. It's strange, it's been a while since we've been around this amount of western civilisation. But don't get me wrong, there is a lot of poverty here too. Supposedly a third of Panamanians live below the poverty line and a good chunk of them live here in the slums. And then there's Casco Viejo, the old quarter which is a UNESCO heritage site and rightly so. Beautifully restored colonial buildings filled with boutique hotels and eateries line the cobblestoned streets and sometimes make you feel like you're walking the streets of Paris or another European city. This is the area where we ended up staying at Luna's Castle, a large hostel in a huge creaky old house with one wall which is partly constructed of the original old city walls.

    Panama City is obviously most known for the nearby Panama Canal, an artificial thoroughfare which was built between the Artic and Pacific oceans when it was realised that this was the skinniest stretch of land between the two oceans. The French began building this canal as far back as 1880 but abandoned the task twenty years later after thousands of the workers were unexpectedly dying from malaria and yellow fever. Americans carried on the job in the early 1900s and maintained control of the canal when it opened in 1910, right up until 1999 when the Panamanians got fed up and reclaimed the power of what was rightfully theirs. I guess this makes the heavy American influence here not so surprising. Even the American dollar has taken over as the predominant currency here, partially due to the fact that when foreign workers were coming to help with the canal, the Panamanian currency was useless whenever they went back home so it was easier to use USD. Nowadays the balboa is treated as 1-1 to the USD and generally you only receive the coins as change less than one dollar. Similar concept to the Cambodian riel I guess.

    We went to Miraflores Locks to see the canal, one of three locks that each of the ships must pass through as part of the crossing because the lake the canals join to is higher than sea level. Some 35-40 ships pass through the locks each day as part of their 80km journey through the canal. We managed to time our visit to see two huge ships going through the locks which was really interesting. It's a slick run operation with each ship's controls handed over to one of the canal officials to guide through. Ropes are tied to four little carts that drive on land either side of the ship to pull it along as usually the ship's engines are turned off for this section. These ships honestly must have only had a few centimetres either side as they squeezed their way through each part of the locks. The rate at which the water fills up each section of the locks is baffling too, considering the scale and the thousands of litres this would require. It's pretty impressive. Another lock was opened last year to accommodate larger ships after a majority vote in a Panamanian referendum. It shows they clearly value the income of the canals and the jobs it creates with a sense of pride for their country.

    Sunday mornings are a relaxed affair in Panama City and they have what's called Sunday Ciclova. This is an initiative which we've seen in some of the other big cities in Central America and it basically involves closing off a few of the main streets each Sunday morning so that people can use the area for exercise. Cycling, running, walking, rollerblading, scootering, you name it. In Panama City it's along the waterfront and even offered free fruit, drinks, bike rental and Zumba which they tried to rope Mike and I into! It was awesome to see exercise and wellbeing promoted and all for free, particularly because it's something that's not seen often in this part of the world but it really should be because despite the levels of poverty, there's also some extremely high levels of obesity.

    Always one to love a viewpoint and especially one you can hike to, Mike and I headed for Cerro Ancon which even though it only sits at 200m, is the highest natural point in the city. In true Mike and Char fashion, we continued our walk from the waterfront in the hottest point of the day to tackle it. We walked through a few dodgy areas to get there and probably took the longest way to the top when we did, but it gave us some cool views over different parts of the city. It's safe to say we were sweaty messes after this one. 35 degree heat, 80-90% humidity and minimal water meant we were in dire need of a drink and a cold shower!

    With Panama City being our last stop, Mike and I thought we'd let ourselves have a couple of splurges, one of which was to visit the bar at the top of the Trump tower on the 66th floor. As you can imagine it was overpriced but ironically they didn't take American Express! And while I don't want to support Trump, on the plus side, the bar overlooked the city and the harbour and gave us amazing views as we watched the sun go down and all the city lights turn on.

    Considering Panama City sits on the Pacific coast, you can imagine it has some amazing seafood. There's a local fish market which is situated right on the harbour so the fish goes straight from the boat to the restaurant, fresh as can be. This was the best time to have ceviche, considering we'd been somewhat avoiding it the rest of this trip but it was well worth the wait! Fresh and lemony. Yum!

    Cat and Rich caught up with us again so we went with them to a local baseball game. Supposedly Panama had a professional league at one point but it only lasted a year so this was just a local league. Our uber driver took us on probably the longest and most congested route to the stadium but thankfully we managed to get a refund on some of this afterwards! The stadium was almost empty but there was still a good atmosphere considering, and it was a fun game to watch even though none of us a particularly big baseball fans.

    Our time in Panama has come to an end with a somewhat hair-raising taxi ride to the airport. 100km/hr feels scarily fast to us now after terrible roads have kept all our transport to 80km/hr at best. Pair that with a taxi driver who is tailgating and/or not looking at the road half the time, no seat belts in the back seats and you've got yourself a nail biting journey. Thankfully our taxi driver Alex made up for it in chat so we enjoyed talking to him in our broken Spanish which he matched with his equally poor English.

    Mike and I are flying back to Costa Rica, San José to be exact. Just for one night before we both go our separate ways - Mike back to New Zealand and me back to London for a little while. We were pleasantly surprised with our one hour Avianca flight having not only snacks and drinks for free but movies and tv programmes too! Spoilt. I have to say it's somewhat soul destroying to know how long in driving hours it took us to cover the same distance, but at least we didn't have to go back on ourselves via bus. We're are topping it off by splashing out for a nice hotel and dinner for our last evening before starting the big couple of days of travel, Mike especially! Whoopsies.

    Final post for the trip coming soon...
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