Panama City. Again. What should I do today? I decide that I want to visit the Panama Canal. There are many things I would like to do, but the problem is costs. Panama City does have a public transportation system. There are buses and a metro. They are inter-urban, and to be honest they don't go everywhere. The metro is one line. It reminds of BART in the Bay Area. BART exists to bring workers to the city. That is how I see the one line of the Panama City Metro. They are working to build additional lines, but for now there is just one. The buses are about the same. They seem to only go on the main streets inside the city. If you need to go anywhere else, you are either going to be walking or taking a taxi.
Taxis are another story. They have no meters. You need to ask the price before you get in. Mostly I have had good luck. I read online what people think the charges should be to places and I have paid half or even less than half. The gringo impuesto is alive and well.
Everything I read online about going to the Panama Canal was about very expensive tours. Anywhere from $85 to $200. Elaborate tours where you get on a boat with food and have the experience of either going through the canal or being up close and personal. When in doubt go to the source: the Panama Canal website. There is a visitor center with observation decks, a museum, and a movie all for the grand price of $15. A deal. I also read to either go early in the morning or later in the afternoon if you want to see the ships passing through.
Now, to get there. It is way out. I heard and read that a taxi would be about $15. That means $30 round trip. You can take a bus, but the times, and the amount of time, leave much to be desired. What to do. In my brilliance, I remember that there is a hop on hop off bus. For $29 I can tour the city and get to the Canal.
The starting point is a mall that appears to be maybe a 12 - 15 minute walk from where I am staying. I head out. One of the things I hate about this city is most of the streets are not marked with signs AND there do not seem to be addresses. This is worse than Buenos Aires where streets change names and directions. I stop to ask someone where 53rd Street is. “Where are you trying to go?” The woman asks me. I tell her “Multicentro.” “No, no, no, es tan lejos.” (It is too far) I tell her I like to walk. I have noticed that I am the only person that I see walking. In many ways Panama City is like L.A. A concrete jungle with skyscrapers, strip malls, and fast food places. No one walking.
I reach the Multicentro and the kiosk where they sell the tickets for the Hop on Hop off bus. The kids who work there are very sweet. They are impressed with my Spanish. After chatting a bit, I paid for my ticket. I noticed on my bracelet they gave me 36 hours for the price of my 24 hour ticket.
I go sit and wait. I watch my fellow travelers. It is funny how you can tell people are uncomfortable when they are out of their comfort zone. I have my look. My look here is ambiguous. I don't look like the typical traveler, and I don't look like I am from here. I chose to wear skirts with tops. I knew it would be cooler. I live in a place with hot and humid weather. I think the dead give away of the American tourist is the fanny pack. God, those things are ugly. That and the water bottle, tour book. The younger set wear shorts and t shirts, and back packs instead of fanny packs. The tourist uniform..oh and let's not forget the caps and assorted hats.
When the bus comes people stampede to get on. I wait and go up top. No one wants to sit near me. If they are forced to, they sit with their back to me. What is up with this? I have my ideas, but that will be another blog post. Traveling in the modern age.
This bus is cool. I like it. The tour guides give the narration in Spanish, English, and French. The imformation is interesting. The malecon or the Cinta Costera was built by filling in the Panama Bay. They created a new causeway along with a recreation area. The idea what to alleviate some of the traffic congestion while giving people a place to walk, bike, and workout. You can walk the Costa Cintura all the way to Casco Viejo. Along the way statues are pointed out.
I ride the bus to the end. I saw where the Panama Canal building is. I will go back when I can see a ship passing through. The only place I actually get off is Casco Viejo. I had been there already, but I liked it. It is an old part of town that was and is being gentrified. The old and the newly rehabbed are mixed together. It is unfortunately a big tourist trap. It is not a place to live. There are hostels and hotels, tourist shops, coffee shops, and restaurants. I like walking around looking at the architecture.
While waiting for the bus to come back and get me, I buy a shaved ice from the vendor near the tour bus area. She shaves the ice with a knife and piles it into a styrofoam cup. I order mayacuya juice to be poured over it. It is yummy. I notice that only me and other Panamanians are ordering. An American asks me “Aren't you afraid to eat that?” Uh, afraid of what? Ahhh yes, the germ phobia. I tell her no. I am not sure I want to start a conversation here because it will only be negative.
The bus arrives. I stay on it until I can arrive at the Panama Canal. I enter the building. I pay my $15. I go up to the observation deck. First I go up to the top. The sun is fierce. A ship is waiting to enter. The announcer is giving a history of the canal, and telling us we came at a good time. The ship moves very slowly. Almost painfully slow. If you don't pay attention, (and listen) you would never know that the water is slowing going down in one part, and filling up in the other. The canal can only fit one boat. Also the traffic goes one way in the morning and the other way in the afternoon. There are two lanes and they are going to build 2 more.
Slowly the ship makes its way. It is an oil tanker from Liberia. The doors of the canal open and the ship passes through. It is a marvel to watch. I am getting burnt. The sun is very strong. I decide to go down to the next observation deck where it has a little bit of cover. The problem is I cannot see anything. Soooo, I go down to the bottom and stand in front of the fence. I have a front row seat.
After the ship passes through, I run outside to see if I can catch the bus. If I miss this one I have to wait an hour. I see them at the end of the parking lot getting ready to leave. I run like a maniac waving my arms... “Espera” I shout. I jump on the bus. They ask if there is anyone else with me. “No, solo yo.” Como siempre. (Like always.)