Like all traveling experiences, sometimes it is the little things that make you love a place or hate it. We have found that sometimes it is beautiful weather, a kind person we meet or a great meal that make us really like a place. On the flip side, a disgusting bathroom, a camping neighbor that plays mariachi music until 3am or dogs barking all night can make us have not so fond memories of others.
When we arrived in Panama City we had low expectations. We were going to go through the first part of shipping our truck to Colombia which we had assumed would be hell and all consuming, and we did not think we would really enjoy Panama City (probably because we did not know much about it). We were wrong.
We cashed in credit card points and stayed at the Country Inn and Suites Panama Canal next to the Balboa Beach Club. This is where all the shipping overlanders meet up, and many camp in the park lot next to it (it was WAY too hot for us to camp here). As I was practicing my choppy Spanish with the front desk girl telling her how much we were enjoying our time in her country, she smiled and upgraded us to a room with a giant terrace overlooking the canal! Boom! A room with a view. Here we would stay in air conditioned paradise taking hot showers without flip flops, flushing toilet paper and watching cable TV for the next five nights. It should not have been as exciting as it was, but we had been boon-docking for a long time. Camping makes you appreciate the little things so much more.
The old town part of Panama City is a great place to visit at night for drinks and dinner. It is small, but has a very atmospheric feel and an old world ambience. This area is getting re-built everywhere and it is a combination of hip boutique hotels and fancy restaurants and delapitated historic buildings that are in the middle of renovations. I bet in five years this area will look more like Antigua or El Centro area of Cartagena, where all the buildings have been gentrified and focused on the tourist industry. But I kind of liked it as it was in partial ruin.
Panama Canal, Miraflores Locks
There are two locks you can visit along the Panama canal, the Miraflores locks ($15 person) near Panama City, and the Gatun locks (free) on the Caribbean side. We tried to visit the Gatun locks the day we shipped our vehicle out of Colon, but because of a fire at the port that delayed us hours, we arrived at the locks at 4PM which was when they closed. So we visited the Miraflores locks the next day. These locks have a museum, a movie (and crowds) and are a great way to watch the boats go through the canal. One thing to take into account, you need to arrive before 9:00am or late in the afternoon after 2pm to see a boat pass through the locks. If there are no boats, it would not be worth visiting.
Down town Panama City
This is a big, busy, international city. We went to a huge mall, saw a movie, ate some great food with our new friends in one of the best restaurants in the city and survived driving around it (take a cab for your sanity!).
All in all, the shipping portion in Panama was way easier that we expected (see next post) and we enjoyed our time in the city, especially our room with a view!