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Panama City, Panama on a Shoestring
My Temporary Home
Getting There and Getting Started
Airlines in the States may have forgotten how to treat their passengers, instead, trying to suck every dime out of them that they can, but this is, thankfully, not true of international flights. I was treated to both a movie and a meal on my 3-hour flight to the “Hub of the Americas,” Panama City, Panama.
I was surprised though, that, once I landed at Tocumen International Airport, it seemed to be smaller than I expected. There are only about 30 gates in the whole airport. I fully expected an international airport to be, at least, the size of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson or New York’s JFK.
The staff was friendly and spoke English well. Of course, I had to go through customs, but it was much less of a hassle than I had anticipated. The two officials just asked me if my trip was business or pleasure and stamped me through.
I had a pre-arranged car to pick me up from the airport and drive me the 40 minutes to my hostel. More on that later. It was a short and comfortable ride, and my driver spoke good English. During my pre-trip research, I read several times that Panama City was just like Miami, except that it was cheaper, cleaner, safer, and more people spoke English. Except for the speaking English part, I found this to be true. Not as many people as I’d been led to believe were even conversational in English.
Since my hostel was very cheap ($7 a day), I fully expected it to be in a less-than-desirable neighborhood far away from the city center. This turned out NOT to be true. The neighborhood wasn’t beautiful by U.S. standards, but it was safe, and it was a good working-class place to spend a week. There was a market around the corner (actually, around EVERY corner), and as U.S. currency is also the currency of Panama, I had no difficulties.
See below to check out my pictures of Hostel Mamallena, where I called home for the week. Check it out at http://www.mamallena.com/ to get the low down. The front entrance is on the street level, but that’s the only thing. When you open the door, the first thing you do is climb the stairs to the main level, where all the action is.
The owner happened to be there that week. He owns 2 other locations of Hostel Mamallena, so that was a pleasant surprise. He’s an Australian man named Stewart, and is very cordial to talk with. He personally took charge of any maintenance issues or other issues that would creep up from time to time.
Once on the main level, you open directly into the common living area. There is a 40 inch big screen mounted on the wall, and plenty of seating around. In this common area is also where the 2 computers with free internet access are located. During the day, those are occupied pretty much all the time, but if you wait until the night, you’ve got them all to yourself.
The television has an appreciable hard drive connected to it. There are a lot of programs to search through, and most are in English. In fact, within the walls of the hostel, English was the common language for everyone to communicate…and I say this having met people from all over the world in that hostel.
Against the wall of the common room was the reception desk, which was always manned by someone. I told them I had reserved a bed for a week, and they told me they had me down for it, to just grab a beer and pick out a bed. Yes, I said I got to pick it. To the right of the reception desk was a large beer cooler, stocked with the local Balboa beer. The first one was on them, but after that, they cost the artificially inflated price of a dollar (did I mention yet that I love it here?)
As you proceed down the hall, there is a common bathroom on the right and the common kitchen on the left. The pancakes were free, and always available, you just had to cook them yourself. For anything else you wanted to cook, just go down to one of the local markets, buy some groceries, and place them in the refrigerator (don’t worry, it’s quite large, but just the same, I would advise putting your name on your bag.)
I should also mention that in the common kitchen, there is a large deep freezer for storing anything you want. Some people had food in there; I ate most of my meals out during my day trips, so I mostly kept a bottle of rum and a bag of ice in there.
Just past that are the bedrooms. There are 4 upstairs. Each room has 4 dorm loft-style beds. Be forewarned, there is NO separation of the sexes here, men and women share the bedrooms. That was nothing for me to worry about, but it might make some people uncomfortable. I picked out a nice bed by the window, plunked down my stuff, and set off exploring.
One more common area lay off to the right. There was a large, screened-in porch with tables and chairs and several hammocks for socializing or just laying around reading a good book. Personally, I wrote. Not only do I write articles, but also have a novel in progress that I worked on every day.
Now to the downstairs area. 1 bathroom with a private shower and 6 locker room showers took up the far wall. To the right of the steps there was a washer and dryer that were available and free to use. There are also a few double-occupancy rooms with doors, so if you’re not comfortable with the thought of mixed company-dorm style living, then perhaps these would suit you better.
Shuffle past the double occupancy rooms and there was a covered area for us smokers. Panama City has joined much of the rest of the industrial world in limiting smoking areas for the benefit of non-smokers. This was the only place we were allowed to smoke, but it was a great gathering place and a social hub all its own. Many Europeans still smoke, and this was a great place to meet them. Like I said, I did that a lot.
I spent the rest of the day walking around and getting acquainted with my local surroundings, because I had day trips scheduled for the next few days. Since I had to get up and be out the door by 8 the next day, I just called it an early night.
Day 2 Tour
The first day trip I had planned was with the same tour group that had arranged for my transfer from the airport. Panama Tourism & Travel (http://www.panamatourismtravel.com/) had a great itinerary lined up for me. Marina picked me up and let me know what to expect out of our travels. First, I would go tour the Panama Canal’s Miraflores locks, then a stop in the fish market, where fresh catches are brought every morning to be sold. They had a nice little restaurant in there. See the picture for my $3.50 meal.
In the afternoon, we journeyed to Old Town Panama, which is the colonial heart of the city. There were a lot of beautiful old buildings and plazas, statues, markets, and even the Presidential Palace. In the U.S., you can only get so close to the White House without arousing angry guys with guns. Here, they had guns, too, but as long as you stayed across the street, you could look all day. I even saw the Presidential Limo pull out (not sure if he was in it.)
By about 3 or 4, I was back at my hostel to write, relax, and socialize with my new friends. I started meeting people right away since I had the time and energy. We all became instant friends as we sat down and snacked and lounged in the sun. The rain came, but we sat on the covered deck and kept talking. Like I said, I met people from all over the world, and went to dinner with a new group of friends every night.
Day 3 & 4
Day 3 was the Embera Indian Village tour. I left out of my hostel at 8 where the tour guide picked up 4 of us, and we hooked up with 4 others and took a passenger van on a 1 hour trip to the point where we got in canoes and pushed off for a 30-minute trip up the river to the village.
The Embera are one of 7 independent native cultures legally recognized within Panama. They were friendly and inviting. Most spoke Spanish, and some spoke English. We had a tour of the village, a ceremony involving dance and a historical talk and a meal, freshly prepared by the villagers.
Back at the hostel later, I met up with yet another group and had a fantastic dinner of Filete de Corvina (filet of Corvina, which is a fish, much like flounder) and Yucca fries. The Yucca is not a potato, but similar, and cooks up much the same way.
Day 4: I met up with a separate tour group that went to Colon, on the east coast of Panama. The trip took about an hour and a half. The Colonial city of Portobello is there. It was sacked by the pirate captain Henry Morgan on July 11, 1668. Many colonial buildings and ruins are still there.
There is a customs house where good from all over the world were brought, taxed, and stored until they reached their final destination. See the pictures below. A majestic fort overlooks the Caribbean, there are slave quarters, and a brewery.
After touring the ruins and learning the history, we went for a hike in the jungle out to a lighthouse. This lighthouse spotted the way for ships out in the Caribbean to come into port. It was a mildly strenuous hike, but we would be well-rewarded on the down slope. The lighthouse was cramped, but interesting and very tall.
Once we got down from the lighthouse and the mountain, we stopped at a café located on the grounds. I got incredibly fresh ceviche that was probably swimming freely that morning. Next was a dip in the Caribbean Sea, swimming out to, and around a statue of Jesus placed in the harbor.
I love the Caribbean Sea. It is the only water that I’ve swam in that I can see all the way to the ocean floor. The water is clean and clear, and let’s not forget, always warm. That’s the upside of being in the tropics.
Days 5, 6, & 7
I had been hitting it pretty hard for several days and needed to get some rest on my vacation. Days 5 and 6, I hung around my local area, went to the mall, walked around, learned some more Spanish, and talked to all kinds of people.
On Day 7, Marina (remember her from earlier?) came and picked me up for my transfer out to the airport. My journey was coming to an end. It was time to say goodbye to Central America for now. I would definitely be back. After the Caribbean gets in your blood, you are hooked…like a junkie for it.
Now was as good a time as any to tally up how much I’d spent on this vacation of mine. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t worry about money while I’m spending it, I just tally up at the end and worry about belt-tightening when I get home.
With everything, which included airfare, hostel stay for 1 week, 3 tours, airport transfers, meals, and the several bottles of rum that I downed, the total for the trip came to $898. A terrific value for less than a grand.