Thursday, February 11, 2016

Panama City

On December 30th, we embarked on our 5 week trip through Panama & Costa Rica. Our first stop was none other than Panama City. We stayed at the Balboa Inn, a five minute taxi ride to Casco Viejo and a 30 min ride from the airport. A taxi from the airport will set you back $35. During our first night, a tree fell on our hotel, but I slept soundly and didn't hear a thing. Simon and Rosie are British and run the inn with ease and smiles. They are extremely friendly and can set up any tours you might need. It is not your fancy hotel but it is homey and in a very safe neighbourhood. Fun fact: El Chorillo lies between us and Casco Viejo (our first stop on our itinerary). We cannot get there without taxi. El Chorillo is a slum area that tourists are NOT allowed to enter on foot. There are police on every corner. It is full of gangs, now everyone tells us that these gangs will kidnap us and rob us if we try to set foot inside El Chorillo. The sad part of this is while we are driving through, it seems like one of the best places for both food and photos. We asked all taxi drivers if they would walk there and most of them said they had never been on foot, that it is too dangerous for them. A note on taxis, beware, they are not metered so you need to agree on a price before getting in to the taxi. Fun Fact #2: We forgot to change all out money at the airport so we are walking around with useless Canadian Dollars. The currency in Panama is the US$$, yes $$, I didn't know either!! It is new years, no banks are open for days and we forgot to call our banks back home to tell them we are travelling. Great start to our day but all we need is some wifi to sort this out.

I could spend days wandering through the pretty streets of Casco Viejo. This area is basically a tourists dream with pretty buildings, gorgeous facades and at least five pretty old churches. Here's the thing, some days were dead quiet in this area and some were packed with tourist buses coming in for a few hours. Another thing, it is so hard to find Panamanian food in Casco Viejo, we managed to find one small place down an alley. They are called Fondas. It is basically beans, rice, chicken that falls off the bone and some pasta salad. Pasta salad comes with all the dishes. Weird right? After spending days waltzing around Casco Viejo, we found another fonda. At a fonda you can also find bone broth stew, beef and pork with all the usual trimmings. Most of the restaurants around the area are western style food and that's not what I came here to eat, although on our last night I did have some of the best pizza of my life at a place called Barrio. You can find all the tourist gifts you need in this area. Coffee, panama hats, magnets, cigars. (Quick side note, Panama is HOT!! An average day was 37deg celsius).

This man was making these props for restaurants to use for new years

A Panama hat. This photo was taken by Farah Khan

It was new years while we were in Panama city so downtown was basically closed for 75% of our time there. Literally nothing was open except a casino, although to be fair there isn't much downtown anyways except high rises, hotels and fast food chains. There is another fun part of town called Cinco de Mayo, it is a huge shopping street where we spent new years eve. It's bustling with hundreds of stalls, people selling fruit, clothes, shoes, belts, toys, fire crackers, coconuts, ice cream, and especially textiles for the Guna Yala & Embera. This area is full of Guna Yala tribe women who wear colourful outfits which you will see in a future post. You can find the Guna Yala all over Chinatown and Cinco de Mayo. Chinatown has a restaurant called Kwang Chow which featured on Anthony Bourdain. We went there on new year's eve because noodles and long life come to mind but I can safely say that I had the best Wonton Soup of my life. Worth a trek if you are in Panama and craving some Chinese food. At first look this place looks dirty and dingy, but after you get over the dirty floors and old ass furniture, your taste buds will be happy. This is one of the oldest china towns in Central America. Like most china towns I have visited it is lined with hardware stores. The one thing that stood out was the old man selling his chickens. People would pick a chicken and he would weigh it old school and then they would just head home with their live chicken and take it from there. This is a fun spot to wander around and all within walking distance from Casco Viejo.

In addition to all of that the fish market is really close by as well and definitely an experience. You'll notice walking around that most of the stall names inside the fish market are religious. Again, it was jointed on new years eve, but that's all part of the experience. Stalls line the fish market dishing out every kind of ceviche. If you just want to sample some, get the smallest portion of the combination ceviche for $1, you can't go wrong. They also have fried fish and patacones served with lime $8 and Panama Lights $2, another super traditional Panamanian dish. This might be the cheapest food in the city. Stroll about but mind the smell, some corners are real fishy.

What better way to spend new years day than with a trip to the Panama Canal. We watched the ships come in & the ships go out. Miraflores is the first set of locks a ship will pass through from the Pacific side. They travel through three sections because the Pacific Ocean is at a lower sea level than the canal and the canal is lower than the Atlantic. 100,000 litres of water is released to fill each of these locks. After Miraflores they will pass through two more locks, the last one being Gatun on the Caribbean side. It takes about 12 hours for a ship to pass through the entire Panama Canal. This one ship in my photos called the Jalma set sail from China and was carrying nothing but salt and was headed for the east coast of America.