The travels have officially begun! We made it to Panama City, the first stop on our 3 month backpacking tour of Central America. Here’s what we got up to…
After a train from Birmingham to Manchester, the 3 empanadas were finally reunited again! At first, it was just nice to be in Alice’s house catching up and having a delicious last supper (thanks, Mrs Williamson!) but it suddenly felt real when we were cramming backpacks into the car at 4am in the morning and setting off for the airport.
We flew Lufthansa from Manchester to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Panama City – about 15 hours in total. Despite all 3 of us being on the exact same journey, it’s safe to say that we all had very different experiences. Whilst Alice described it as ‘the best flight of her life’, Abbie got searched for about 20 minutes at security, had to make an emergency call to her bank after her card was declined and found herself sitting next to the world’s smelliest man on the longest leg of our journey with a TV that didn’t work properly. I was just indifferent to the whole thing and, as usual, slept through all of it…
Upon arrival in Panama, I managed to misplace my immigration card and my phone in a matter of minutes but, of course, the girls were familiar with my scatty antics and the problems were swiftly solved. Alice now insists that any valuable piece of paper/object that I obtain goes straight into her possession – day 1 and I’m already the group liability! That’s a new record…
The first thing we attempted to do was withdraw some Panamanian money so that we could pay for a taxi to our hostel. Unfortunately, every cash point wanted to charge us $5 extra per withdrawal, which none of us were keen to do. It was only then that we realised; the currency in Panama is just American dollars and luckily I had some of those stashed away! Crisis averted.
Our hostel was in the Marbella district of Panama city – Hostel Villa Vento Surf. I don’t think we could have started our trip in a better place – the staff are so friendly, the rooms are spacious, there’s a hostel dog called Obi-Wan Kenobi, the common areas are super cool and there are free pancakes for breakfast! What more could anyone ask for?!
We arrived quite late so we decided to dump our bags, have a chat with the hostel owners about what to do in Panama and then get some rest. Our favourite staff member was called Daniel and he shared all his top tips on where to visit/eat/stay in Panama – I’ll make sure to include them in a separate ‘Panama dos and don’ts‘ post!
The jetlag didn’t take long to set in and we all decided to bypass the bedtime shower to get some sleep instead. Abbie threw up a few times because of her malaria tablets (no, this really wasn’t a good day for her) and Alice’s attempt to explain why she was ill led to people thinking that she actually had malaria…
The malaria tablets have been the centre of many-a-discussion recently. It appears that the UK health system cannot agree on which tablets to take for different countries and we’re all on completely different perscriptions.
I’m on a mix of tablets but only for Honduras and parts of Nicaragua, whilst Alice is on a weekly tablet and Abbie is on a daily tablet, both for the entire duration of the trip. Seeing the other two experience the side-effects (hair loss, migraines, sickness) is really putting me off starting mine but I’ve been on malaria tablets before and had no issue, so fingers crossed it’s the same this time around!
After sweating profusely all night in the most humid environment I’ve ever experienced, we woke up to news that the whole city was experiencing a water shortage. Yep, that meant no toilets and no showers! It was only then that we realised it had been 48 hours since any of us had showered and we’d have to wait another 24 for another one… We haven’t even been travelling for a week and we’re already filthy. Great start.
Instead of moaning, we just laughed it off and went out anyway. Abbie even declared that Vikings only shower once a month, to which Alice contested that Vikings absolutely stink and then we soon accepted that none of us had ever even met a Viking so it was gonna be tough to justify our hygiene situation based on these facts. I think this was the moment that I realised I was travelling with the best possible people – the ‘traveller mentality’ is definitely not in everyone but the 3 of us seem to remain positive even when things get a bit grim and I just know that the next few months are going to be a breeze! We’ve even had some comments about how good our group dynamics are – I do the research, Alice makes the decision and Abbie gives her thumbs up to whatever we settle on. Dream team!
So, let’s get down to the details of our first day in Panama City. Naturally, seeing as we went to bed at 8pm, we were all wide awake at 5am and raring to go (well, we were raring to shower but alas). We decided to stroll down to the Old Town – or Casco Viejo, as it’s called – along the main street that runs next to the ocean. As we left our hostel we were greeted by a ton of whistles, catcalls and even just blank stares from Panamanian men. Of course, then, we were lining up to be their girlfriends!!! 😒 No, really, why is this a thing? CREEPS EVERYWHERE.
The walk takes about 40 minutes each way but there are so many picture spots and ‘miradors’ en-route that I’d say it’s definitely worth the effort but, be warned: the sun is so strong even through the clouds and there’s no shade on the walk so carry some sunscreen and water just to be safe.
As you get further and further from the centre, the modern skyscrapers and luxury 5* hotels become old, traditional buildings. The juxtaposition of the two areas is actually pretty crazy to see!
Just before the Old Town, there’s a fish market buzzing with boats and fishermen. Fishing is such a big trade out here in Central America – and yeah, it’s not in line with my veggie values but I do appreciate that it is the SOLE source of income for many people (pun intended). Once we reached the Old Town, we felt like we’d been out for hours and it’d be nearing lunchtime. After we checked our phones we discovered that it was only 9.40am – jetlag is a bitch.
To kill some time we decided to lounge around by a fountain before heading into the main part of the Old Town. Casco Viejo in Panama City is jam-packed with quirky, little streets and interesting architechture.
We meandered from place to place with no destination in mind and wound up exploring a market, a beach, a church and some ruins before settling down for lunch at a salad/wrap bar where, to my excitement, there were vegan options galore.
For this trip I’ve decided to try and eat vegan whenever possible but I don’t think Latin America caters well for ‘fussy eaters’. I don’t have easy access to substitutes or supplements and specialised vegan restaurants eat into a traveller budget very quickly – but I’ll keep you updated with how it’s going!
After lunch we attempted to be organised travellers and purchase our bus tickets to Bocas del Toro (north of Panama) a few days in advance. The journey from the city centre to the bus station was our first introduction to the infamous ‘Chicken Bus’ or ‘Diablo Rojo’ as they call them here.
They are old school buses from America that have been covered in graffiti and kitted out with decorations and speakers inside. If you can imagine a really shit episode of ‘Pimp my Ride’ where they don’t actually replace the failing engine or the torn apart seats and Xzibit is a chubby, 5 foot 2 Panamanian man then you’ll be able to get a gist for what these buses are like.
I’m sure you’ve seen a ton of programs on TV about how dangerous these are, and sure, the driving is questionable, but our experiences have been fairly positive so far. It’s 50 cents per journey and although it’s quite cramped, bumpy (sports bras are a must, girls and guys with man-boobs) and you’ll stand out as an obvious tourist, it’s definitely a cheaper option than a public bus or taxi.
We think the Chicken Buses are in direct competition with the city public buses and may, potentially, also be illegal. We aren’t too sure. They just don’t seem to be able to stay anywhere for very long and they have no official bus stops. Also, when we asked around about which bus to catch – people seemed apprehensive to give too much information away about them. Interesting.
The bus ride took us through the rougher neighbourhoods of Panama City and proved to be quite a wake-up call after spending so much time in the affluent area where our hostel was based. When we got to the bus station we were told that tickets could only be purchased for the same day as travel so it turned out to be a wasted journey but, for positivity’s sake, we saw it as a learning experience and an ‘afternoon activity’ before heading back to the hostel.
When we finally took a shower in the evening, it was just 10 seconds before we all felt dirty again. The humidity, sunscreen and bug spray don’t exactly mix too well – maybe showers will be less regular than we antipated but hey, just call us water-conservers ✌️(or lazy – either of those is fine)
On our final day in the city, we decided to visit the Panama Canals purely because they are such an iconic part of Panama it seemed silly not to. However, what we thought was going to be a scenic cruise turned out to be an overpriced museum with a viewpoint overlooking the canal. Talk about lost in translation… To make everything better, we didn’t even see a boat and we could barely even see the museum exhibits because Panamanians were lining up to take selfies left right and centre. Long story short, you can probably bypass this day trip and spend your hard-earned money somewhere else. Nevertheless, we learned a ton of interesting facts – the canal connects both the Pacific and Atlantic ocean and united a ton of workers from all over the world to create this man-made ‘wonder of the world’. We failed to see the wonder (What did they do with all the rubble? Did they really replant the trees that they cut down? Were the workers exploited?) but some people decided to pay more and extend their 2-hour stay. So, clearly it does have it’s fans!
Overall, Panama City was both exactly and nothing like what we imagined. That may sound confusing but basically, it had all of the Latin American elements that we expected but with a really modern, American twist. All of us said we would love to experience it from a luxury perspective and bring our families – who knows, one day we might!
Until then, Ciudad de Panamá!
Next stop: San Blas Islands 🌴🌴🌴