Panama City is sold as the Miami of Central America, a tagline that is in the eye of the beholder. As a seasoned traveller I have learnt to manage my expectations, but this city still managed to astonish. Here are eight things that represent my recollection of the first 72 hours in Panama City.
Panama City is the only capital city in the world that has a rainforest within its city limits. But before we could wander off and explore the natural beauty, we had things to do in the city. It was like a crash course, the proverbial ‘Panama City 101’
Panama City is not the only city in the world with traffic challenges. I have experienced the traffic chaos of Lagos in Nigeria, with a population of around 17.5 million people. With a non-existent public transport system, that chaos is intense but understandable.
Consider two commercial capitals to our north, Mexico City and New York. Each has a population of around 9 million inhabitants, and each has its share of traffic problems. It is somewhat understandable.
The local number, however, is a surprise. Panama City is home to less than 1 million people! The hectic traffic therefor points to a lack of long-term planning and economic development that overtook the investment in infrastructure. The myriad of narrow one-way streets adds to the problem, especially when roadworks are in process. And when it rains, some streets turn into small rivers because the drainage system becomes swamped – literally!
In the city’s defence, the authorities have achieved some success by implementing the Metro and the complementing Metro Bus service. And the Metro is being expanded significantly. It is cheap and reliable, and the Metro Card works like a charm! But for the foreseeable future, the traffic chaos will continue.
Panama City is exactly 1 000km from the equator, in relative terms very close to that peculiar region that does not have four distinct seasons. It is tropical hot, every day. The monthly average maximum temperature only varies by three degrees C, between 29ºC (84ºF) and 32ºC (90ºF).
But it’s not the temperature in itself that surprises, it’s that impish relationship with the humidity that gets you sweaty and sticky. The average annual percentage of humidity is 86%.
Our recollection of the first evening’s hot climate is actually a pleasant one. After a five-hour delay at Amsterdam’s Airport Schipol, we touched down at 21h30, and reached our apartment in downtown Panama City just before midnight. We were dead tired, but dumped our bags and walked to an open-air pub, to savour an ice cold beer. The music, the cold beer and the warm night fused into a feeling of bliss.
Ever watched Italians in conversation? How animated they are, and how they simply cannot talk without elaborate movements of the arms and gesturing with the hands?
It is the same with Panamanian taxi drivers and their cars’ horns. They cannot drive without honking! Taxi training, it seems, goes something like this: “If it moves, honk at it. If it doesn’t move, honk at it until it moves, then honk at it.” I am convinced that some drivers measure their own driving efficiency in honks per linear meter travelled.
I normally walk around with a small daypack, as it frees up the hands for taking photos and generally makes walking around any place easier. But the taxi drivers have a trained eye and they notice the daypack, and that equates to a tourist, which equates to a few honks for my attention.
Another source of noise is the colourful “diablo rojos”, the red devils. These are ex-US school buses that were imported, each becoming a marvellous work of art as individual and outlandish as its owner. Apart from the engine screaming like a Fellbeast straight out of a Tolkien novel, some are fitted with air horns suitable for a cruise ship. Now imagine a bus terminal (Allbrook) where hundreds of these monsters weave their way in and out!
When thinking about Panamanians, two words come to mind, namely tolerant and kind.
Their tolerance was evident everywhere, from the busy and narrow sidewalks to riding on the metro, to dodging taxis during a downpour. Don’t get me wrong, the Latino spirit can get them excited and loud, but I cannot imagine a Panamanian throwing a public tantrum like I’ve seen in many other countries.
Apart from the ability to order two cold beers, and being vocally thankful upon delivery, we don’t speak much Spanish. That means interactions are on a different personal level than the ordinary, and I could get a real sense that people were helpful by nature. We were offered assistance, unsolicited, on several occasions. And that was appreciated.
While waiting for a flight at Allbrook Airport, we were approached by a young lady who was doing a survey on behalf of the Tourism Authority of Panama. During the survey the issue of garbage came up a few times, and chatting to her afterwards, she gave us some insights as to the extent of the problem. It was mentioned by virtually all travellers who completed the survey.
There are pockets of excellence, where it is beautifully clean and kept, such as inside the Metro stations and trains, newly renovated parts of Casco Viejo and parts of the banking district in the city centre. But overall, the refuse removal system is falling short.
The irony is that the current refuse removal system is working, it is just very ineffective. A significant part of the problem can seemingly be fixed by changing to domestic and industrial waste bins, instead of refuse bags being put on the sidewalk for collection.
Until then, uncollected pieces of litter will remain an eyesore on many sidewalks.
System of measurement
The world has two systems of measurement, and Panama City has both!
With the historically strong influence from the US, especially during the construction of the Panama Canal, the country functioned in pounds, gallons and miles. Until 2013, when the metric system was officially adopted.
Fuel filling stations all switched over on a certain date, but the rest of the economy found its own way. You will find an advertisement for an apartment, with the size in square feet and distance to the metro in kilometres!
At the fresh produce section in the supermarket, prices will be displayed for both pounds and kilograms.
The funny things is, it’s only a problem for expats and tourists. Whether you are from the only country on this planet to use the standard system, or from civilization where the metric system is used, the local mix can easily get you stumped. The locals are used to it and get along with it just fine.
Panama City is expensive, it is not the cheap retirement haven it used to be 10 years ago. From accommodation to clothes, to a meal at a good restaurant, prices are close to or on par with many large cities in the US.
Where is the beach?
Here’s a riddle: which city is both the political and commercial capital of its country, is located on the Pacific Ocean, but has no beach? Panama City.
The strip of Pacific beach communities from Chame to Playa Blanca is referred to as the “city beaches”, but Chame is about 60km (38 miles) from the city, so not exactly a city beach.
There are many viewpoints in and around the city where the ocean, especially the sunsets, can be enjoyed. However, not while you have your toes in the sand.
“There’s something about arriving in new cities, wandering empty streets with no destination. I will never lose the love for arriving, but I’m born to leave” – Charlotte Eriksson
PS: Carnival in Panama City is something special. In this article, you can read about the holidays and festivals in Panama.
I would love to hear your thoughts about the first impressions of a city you visited.