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Panama City, December 2015

Well, damn….Having now read through this pile of crap I wrote I see it’s turned into a blah, blah, blahfest. God, I am long winded! So executive summary…..Jeri and I had a great time, Panama City is a stunning city and nothing like what we thought it was going to be, and the Panama Canal absolutely rocks. So you can quit reading now. You’re welcome.

So, um…why Panama City?

While Jeri and I have done a bit of traveling in the past, there are a great many places we haven’t been. And we’ve become a bit tired of spending money on “things” and decided spending on “experiences” would be a refreshing change. So with this in mind we’ve planned a big increase in the amount of traveling we’re going to do.

Of course I’m not one to do things half-assed so I set about figuring out how to do this comfortably (say YES! to first or business class), affordably and with the greatest amount of protection from misconnected flights and irregular operations. This meant we needed some sort of elite status with an airline.

As American Airlines goes to many places we are interested in, we have their credit cards and have flown them before, we settled on going for status with American. I was able to find an available short cut to their elite level called “Platinum” (ooohhh, so lofty!) by flying a crapload of miles in the last three months of 2015. If we were successful we’d hold that frequent flyer status with American until February of 2017, and we already have a lot of flights planned for 2016….so, good. Let the games begin!

In looking around for suitable flights to gain large amounts of flight miles I found American was offering flights from LAX to Panama City, by way of Miami, in stinkin’ first class for only $700 round trip. Other than that canal thing, I knew nothing about Panama City, but hey, it was a lot of miles in first class at a ridiculously cheap price so why not? No matter what it would be an adventure. So we decided on three nights there (two full days) and I booked us for early December.

Looking for a place to stay, Trip Advisor was showing 116 hotels in Panama City, which struck me as a rather large number for what I imagined to be a sleepy, small town. Reviews for the chain hotels we usually stay with weren’t all that glowing and they were pricey. So I ended up booking with what was listed as the #1 rated hotel in Panama City, the Grace Panama. The reviews were mostly raves and I was able to book a 650 square foot suite for only $145 a night, so we were set.

As the date for our trip approached all was going as planned. Then American Airlines announced big changes to their frequent flyer program for 2016. We found that while achieving Platinum status had been fine for our planned future trips, with the upcoming changes their “Executive Platinum” level (so MUCH more lofty!), their highest tier, would put us in a far better position. The problem was this required even more miles be flown in our same limited time frame. I was able to find a cheap (less than $700 round trip) trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico that I could just slip in as an overnight trip (!!) immediately prior to our Panama trip.

It was a bit of calculated stupidity that eventually worked out, but left only two days at home before again hopping on a plane to Panama. Given the time zone whiplash, we were a bit loopy when we finally arrived late at night in Panama City. Fortunately we had arranged for a driver through our hotel and there at baggage claim was a guy holding up our names. As we stepped out of the airport terminal the hot, humid tropical air hit us like a 2 x 4 and we realized air conditioning was going to be a big deal for the next few days.

Check in at Grace went really well and they offered water or champagne. Extremely helpful service and first impressions of the lobby were stunning. But our room blew our socks off. It was on the 16th floor, a corner suite, with ceiling to floor glass windows looking out over Panama City. In all our travels it was probably the nicest room we’ve ever stayed in. They even had a free welcome dessert waiting. Oh, and maybe the best thing…..killer air conditioning!

We slept reasonably well considering we had hopped over three time zones. Opening the curtains in the morning continued with the socks blowing off theme as the view was just amazing. It was a sea of stylish new high rise buildings, with the ocean visible in the distance. This clearly wasn’t the sleepy town I had imagined but rather a smaller version of Miami.

Why yes.....I do believe I could stay in this room a few days.....

Why yes…..I do believe I could stay in this room a few days…..

Our hotel bathroom was an exhibitionist's dream. Wait, is that a tub or a Grecian sarcophagus?

Our hotel bathroom was an exhibitionist’s dream. Wait, is that a tub or a Grecian sarcophagus?

The Grace Panama Hotel: Building on the right, right hand corner, 16th floor. Home for three days. Life is hard sometimes.

The Grace Panama Hotel: Building on the right, right hand corner, 16th floor. Home for three days. Life is hard sometimes.

My initial plan was to have tracked down a local SIM card for our phones as we use them for directions for getting around. But now that you can cache Google Maps on your phone for use offline we were pretty well covered in terms of direction finding. And the Grace’s WiFi was excellent. So no SIM card for this trip. We were traveling dataless!

After a very good breakfast at Grace, we set off on our canal adventure. Our plan was to walk the 3 or 4 blocks to a Metro station, take the Metro to the Albrook Transportation Center, and from there a bus to the Miraflores Locks visitor center.

During the walk to the Metro station our decision not to rent a car was overwhelmingly validated. Arriving as we did late at night, traffic was light and driving a rental car appeared plausible. But now in the morning rush period, no way in hell. It was just crazy gridlock. The problem was obvious…..Panama City is building new high rises like crazy, but they were trying to get by with the same narrow roads, many of which were only two lanes. Driving outside of Panama City would probably have been fine, or even within Panama City well outside of peak periods. But trying to drive inside Panama City within the hours of 7 AM to 10 AM and 3 PM until 7 PM would have just been a nightmare. And with all the ongoing construction it is just going to get worse.

We found the Metro station without problem and it was truly impressive. It’s a world-class operation, just over a year old. Currently it consists of only one 8.5 mile line, about half of it underground. The generally spotless stations have elevators. Ticketing is handled by rechargeable proximity cards which cost an initial $2 each and are waved at a pad to go through turnstiles. Beyond the initial card charge you can load them with as much value as desired. Since a Metro ride is only $0.35 a little money goes a long way. It probably goes without saying (so why am I saying it?) that the Metro is wildly popular with the Panamanians. The cars can get insanely packed during peak periods which we were to discover. Fortunately the trains come by very often.

One of Panama City's Metro stations. NOT during rush hour!

One of Panama City’s Metro stations. NOT during rush hour!

We were each going to buy a Metro card, but the very helpful Metro staff standing near the ticket machines (keeping an eye out for us clueless tourists) pointed out we only needed one. They said we could just pass it back and tap it again for the second person. Very simple and elegant. These same cards were also used to ride Panama City’s new fleet of buses, also at only $0.35 per ride.

Our destination was the very last station on the Metro line, the Grand National Transportation Terminal, also known as the Albrook Bus Terminal. This is a huge transportation terminal where many regional lines run out of to distant parts of Panama as well as nearby countries. We knew there was a dedicated busroute that ran from the terminal to the Miraflores visitor center at the canal locks, we just had to find it. The poor signage made this something of a challenge, but Jeri eventually asked one of the security guards in Spanglish and he pointed us in the right direction. The nicely air conditioned bus was waiting at its dock so we hopped on and off we headed to the canal.

It was about a 20 minute ride with the last stop of the line precisely at the entry steps into the visitor center. Unless I could get someone to carry me, I doubt it could be more convenient. We showed up sometime around 11 AM.

At $15 admission (only $3 for Panamanians) it was a bit pricey for Panama, but totally worth it. There are museums spread over 4 levels showing the history of the canal and how it was built, a theater, a restaurant or two and elevated shaded viewing areas of the canal. While it would likely get you arrested, you are close enough to the canal that you could throw a rock and have it land in the water. This place is an engineer’s wet dream.

We had assumed there would be ships passing by somewhat regularly, but that wasn’t the case. Typically eastbound ships start their passage though the canal system in the morning from the Pacific side. Since the Miraflores locks are the ones closest to the Pacific, all the eastbound ships had already passed through for the day. Meanwhile, the westbound ships had started out from the Atlantic side also that morning, but the first westbound ship wasn’t expected to arrive until around 2:30 PM. We knew this because of the excellent ongoing commentary, provided in both Spanish and English, piped over the public address system at the visitor center.

It seemed like a long time to wait but since seeing the canal was one of the main purposes of this trip I was just going to have to suck it up (Jeri is much more mature about waiting than me). So we found some nice seats in the visitor center’s shaded stadium seating area and passed the time eating slightly mediocre gelato from an adjacent stand. Even though it was about 88 degrees the shade a strong breeze made it feel rather pleasant. And watching the routine canal operations as the electric tugs moved miscellaneous equipment back and forth helped pass the time.

Looking inland at the locks from the Miraflores visitor center.

Looking inland at the locks from the Miraflores visitor center.

The view of the locks directly in front of the visitor center.

The view of the locks directly in front of the visitor center.

The view of the locks from the Miraflores visitor looking toward the Pacific.  These are the last locks before reaching the ocean.

The view of the locks from the Miraflores visitor looking toward the Pacific. These are the last locks before reaching the ocean.

Eventually some sort of medium sized tanker arrived, followed by two very large cruise ships. It was more than worth the wait. Again, running bilingual commentary was provided by the visitor center, and I’m sure the folks lining the rails on the cruise ships enjoyed it also.

A small catamaran and a medium sized tanker behind it in a parallel lock.

A small catamaran and a medium sized tanker behind it in a parallel lock.

Can't get any bigger. The tanker is behind the cruise ship, to the left, and has already been lowered.

Can’t get any bigger. The tanker is behind the cruise ship, to the left, and has already been lowered.

I was curious what it cost to make a transit through the canal. Turns out it’s based on all sorts of factors, like size of ship, type of load, number of berths, etc. It can range from as low as $1,500 for a small yacht sort of vessel, all the way to up to well over $300,000 for the largest cargo carriers. Cruise ships pay by the number of berths (beds) they have, regardless of the number of actual passengers they are actually carrying, and currently runs around $140 per berth. You do the math. The canal even has some sort of “loyalty program” for their regular customers. OK, enough canal facts. Really, you should see the damn thing…..It’s really fantastic.

While snagging the bus to the Miraflores visitor center was quick and easy, it was a rather long wait for it to show up when we wanted to leave. Sure there were quite a few cab drivers hanging around looking for fares, but having worked out how to do the bus was a point of pride, so no taxi for us (Jeri may have felt differently). Eventually the bus showed up….then drove right past us and pulled over in a parking lot about a quarter mile away. Apparently it was the driver’s break time, and us small crowd of waiting tourists were treated to distant views of the driver taking a smoke break, checking his cell phone and using the adjacent porta-potty. Finally, he ran out of diversions and came back to pick us up. My suspicion was that he was in the pay of the cluster of cabbies.

The ride back to the Albrook bus terminal was….interesting. It was now nearing 4 PM and the Panamanian traffic I had heard such horror stories about had begun. It was pretty crazy and probably took twice as long to get back to Albrook. By the time we hit Albrook it was full on rush hour(s), so we decided to forego checking out the actual mall until the next day and just concentrate on getting back to our hotel.

Once back at the bus terminal we headed off to the Metro station along with thousands of our newest friends. Now I haven’t ridden the Tokyo subways but I picture them similar to the Panama City Metro during rush hours. Serious bodily contact and we really had to be mindful of our valuables. Fortunately we had only about 5 stops to endure and by breathing shallowly we were able to fit. Oh, and the Metro’s air conditioning was excellent!

After resting up at the hotel a bit, we found we still had time for some more exploration. We found a place only a block from the hotel which turned out to be really amazing, the Soho Mall (Curiously, Panama City seems to be awash in malls, much more so than in the USA). To say the Soho Mall was high-end is a bit of an understatement. It was a four level church of the One Percent! Tenants included Rolex, Prada, Ferragamo, Bvlgari, Valentino, Christian Dior and other brands so above me I’ve never heard of them. For us, the mall’s biggest surprise was a full-fledged Ladure, a very high end Patisserie based in Paris. When you see lists of the best macarons, Ladure is usually someplace on them. Since Jeri went through a serious macaron making obsession phase (we’re talking numbers nudging a thousand) we were looking forward to checking out Ladure on our next Paris trip. Well, cross that off the list. For the record, the ones we sampled at Ladure were about the best we’ve ever had…..essentially perfect.

We don't need no stinkin' trip to Paris!

We don’t need no stinkin’ trip to Paris!

Having found Ladure, we realized things could only go downhill from there so we returned to our room. The Soho Mall was a really interesting place in a conspicuous consumption sort of way. While really large, there weren’t a lot of locals there. I’m not sure who is buying all the high end goods. We did see signs that construction of a Ritz Carlton Hotel attached to the mall was nearing completion and would be open in mid-2016. Now THAT looks like a perfect match.

The next morning, after a good hotel breakfast, we headed back to the nearest Metro station and took it a few stops further down. From there it was only a several block walk to the shore and the Mercado de Mariscos (the Fish Market!). This involved crossing a few very busy streets but we just clumped in with the crossing Panamanians figuring they knew what they were doing. And they did. The Mercado de Mariscos was large and reasonably aromatic. The fish everyone seemed to be selling was Corvina, and we were sorry we hadn’t had a chance to try it.

A part of the Mercado de Mariscos. Lacking the smell, of course.

A part of the Mercado de Mariscos. Lacking the smell, of course.

The edge of the market is located on the Cinta Costera (Coastal Beltway), our next destination. This is a sort of linear park running along the Panama City waterfront. It has bike and walking paths, parks, lawns and playgrounds. I don’t know how far it runs, as we tired out before it did. But it was pretty spectacular, with stunning views of the amazing Panama City skyline. Clearly, Panama City in no way resembled what I thought it would be, which is certainly my failing and not its.

Walking along the Cinta Costera

Walking along the Cinta Costera

Looking back toward the Mercado de Mariscos the Cinta Costera is visible swinging off to the left.

Looking back toward the Mercado de Mariscos the Cinta Costera is visible swinging off to the left.

And in the other direction, the Cinta Costera continues well into the city.

And in the other direction, the Cinta Costera continues well into the city.

As the temperature was getting a little nasty (we later found it hit 90 degrees that day), we thought it time to explore the air conditioned splendor we came to know as the Albrook Mall, the next stop in our Panama City mall tour. This required only a three block walk from the Cinta Costera to the nearest Metro station, and a ride back to the end of the line.

Albrook Mall claims it’s the largest mall in “Latin America”. Now I don’t know exactly what that means but it smells like hype. However as a lifelong American, I knows me my malls. And I’ve been to Canada’s West Edmonton Mall, which claims to be the largest mall in North America. Notice the “North America” qualifier? That’s because the friggin’ Albrook Mall is bigger! It’s bigger than anything in North, Central or South America. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Mall of America and King of Prussia. You could drop about one and a half of either of those two malls into the Albrook and not bother any of the diners at its three massive food courts.

Now at the time, we knew none of this (thank you, Wikipedia). But after several hours of wandering it became apparent we were in something unusual. The sucker just kept going on and on. The shops weren’t anything much different than you’d see in the US, so there was little sense of being in Panama, excepting most (but not all) of the signage being in Spanish. In the food courts there were many familiar US names (sadly!). I didn’t take any pictures inside the Albrook Mall because…well….it looks like any other mall you’ve seen anywhere. But MUCH bigger.

By early afternoon, big as it was, the mall was starting to get rather crowded. Then we realized it was a Saturday……shortly before Christmas. What the hell were we doing at a mall? Half of Panama seemed to be out doing their Christmas shopping. So we figured it was time to head back towards the hotel, especially not wanting to get caught in any late afternoon shopping rush period.

The only other thing of note we did that day was to visit a local supermarket. That’s something we love to do whenever visiting other countries. Seeing the products available gives a great flavor of what typical life is like there. We were somewhat surprised to find it looked very much like a typical US market with not a whole lot of local flavor. That was an odd experience.

Sunday morning came and our arranged driver showed up to take us to the airport. The staff at the Grace gave us a really pleasant sendoff, much warmer than anyplace we’ve experienced in the US. Very nice hotel. The ride to the airport was quick and uneventful, but traffic from the airport was jammed and not moving, as that’s just Panama. We certainly were headed the right way.

The Tocumen International Airport (PTY) was, um….interesting. As we went through the usual security checkpoint they pounced on Jeri’s metal nail file and confiscated that. Not sure what that was about as that same nail file had made it through countless TSA and EU inspections. I guess they were afraid Jeri might try to file someone to death. She does get that look in her eyes sometimes.

Heading into the airport we were pleasantly surprised to find it pretty nice. I had seen a number of online postings complaining about what a dump it was. Now maybe those posts were old and new airport wings had recently opened or perhaps I am actually white trash and even shithole places look good to me. In either case we enjoyed walking around the rather sprawling place. The usual airport shops were there and a decent selection of fast food joints, even a Carl’s Jr. All in all, not a bad airport to hang out in.

We decided to get to our gate a bit early and it was a good thing we did. There was yet ANOTHER security screening to go through, apparently because it was going to the US. After doing so, everyone was then “trapped” at the gate and couldn’t leave. Also, anyone who bought a bottle of water at an airport concession, reasonably thinking they could bring it on the plane, were sorely disappointed. No water for you! Seeing as how Jeri had already been heroically relieved of her lethal nail file we had no issues.

After a three hour flight to Miami, a too long 4 1/2 hour layover there, then a five hour flight to LAX (all on 737s!) we finally got puked forth at LAX around 12:30 AM, also known as 3:30 AM Panama time. The only good thing about that hour is there wasn’t any traffic to run into on the way home. It’s the sort of thing that always seems better in my head when I’m planning then when I actually end up doing it.

Oh yeah, and just a couple of days after our return American Airlines let both Jeri and I know we were now both exalted members of their Executive Platinum elite. We feel SO special…..But it’s a game changer for our future flying plans.

Overall impressions

Panama City was a very fun and surprising place. Not really third world at all. We wouldn’t mind returning and exploring more rural parts of Panama.

The Metro and bus system made getting around very easy and was really cheap. With such a world-class transportation system available, driving a rental car in Panama City would be a rather stupid thing to do. Plan for the evening rush period though.

We never saw any panhandlers or even sketchy people. In that sense downtown Los Angeles looks far seedier than Panama City. Everyone looked like they had jobs and had their shit together.

Flying to Panama is pretty damn cheap, even being decadent and going first class. For that matter, Panama itself is very inexpensive.

The locals were very friendly and English was widely spoken.

Money was easy, as they take US dollars literally everywhere. Panama does have its own currency, the Balboa, but it’s tied one to one to the dollar. We got a few Balboas in our change occasionally, but mostly regular US money.

There were only two negatives that I could see to the place, the insane peak period traffic and the weather. It’s the tropics and is really never cool there. I prefer my heat to be of a drier nature.

If the canal was the only thing we saw on the entire trip it would have made the trip worth it. It’s that good. Humans are clever little buggers….

So….We had an excellent time and found Panama City to be a wonderful surprise.