10 Lessons from Panama

dsc_6890-copy-2After 11 days in both Panama City and the countryside, we’ve learnt a few tidbits from this wonderful country that we will take away, remember and maybe even learn from.  Some lessons we have already written about in previous posts – namely to always remember earplugs when staying in hostel dorms, every westerner living here has some kind of back story, how to once again evacuate a natural disaster area and finally, that Jen still doesn’t really like coffee, even when given the really good, expensive stuff.  Below are 10 other bits of info, that we think characterise our time here. . .

Oh, but first, a word from our sponsor. . .

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We also started a new series – “L’Autruche hosted by”, which is when our L’Autruche cups are welcomed by a local craft brewery.  Here’s the first in the series – L’Autruche hosted by Casa Bruja from Costa del Este, Panama.

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Sadly, there will be a delay in future instalments of the series, since Hurricane Otto, took our cups (see previous blog post).

Lesson 1 – Panama is more expensive than you think

Given that we found good accommodation fairly cheaply when planning this part of the trip, we naively thought the place would be inexpensive when compared to London or the States.  We budgeted the time here in the “moderate” price category.  Not really so much.  It didn’t help that we saw a guidebook from 2004 that stated you could spend $20-$30 here per day.  Yea, a lot has changed in that decade – thanks globalisation.

In particular, the food here is just as expensive as in London or the States, and in Panama City it was more.  For example, not paying attention to the menu, for lunch one day, Erwan just ordered a burrito from a place near our hostel.  It was $10!  A simple burrito you get at the likes of Chipotle for $6!

To save money we thought we’d buy food at the supermarket, but even that is expensive.  For instance, a bag of pretzels was over $4 and any type of candy bar or chocolate was just crazy money.  The only reasonably priced items were the fresh fruit and veg – I guess that’s good for the health.

So we ended up eating at a lot of street stalls or roadside restaurants – essentially a lot of rice and beans.  These places serve a single dish of the day (so no choice or menu), but it’ll be a good hearty meal and we would be able to usually feed both of us with beers for $10-$15.

Also we previously lucked out on the accommodation due to Airbnb and finding a quality hostel with dorm beds for $10-$15.  In reality, it was more expensive than we thought.  When we had to book other places at last minute, a dodgy hotel was £35 (where both hot water and wifi are spotty) and less appetising dorm beds were the same as our great hostel in Panama City.  Your average decent hotel is $50-$70 a night, with nice ones being $120 upwards.

That being said, beer is cheap. In most places, a beer will run you $1 and most places have specials on buckets or multi buys.  We would go for the buckets. . . That balances out the health of the fresh fruit and veg. . .

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Lesson 2 – Pay attention to the weather, but don’t be deterred by it.

So we knew we were travelling during the end of rainy season.  The optimists in us, hoped that it would be a short season and we would still get good weather.  Yet the pessimists read articles on the rainy season prior to coming and the term appeared to be a bit of a misnomer.  Although there certainly is more rain during these months, it is not usually be characterised by continual rain.  Every day gets showers, but only for a couple hours, at most half a day.

Now, if you have been paying attention to our blog, you know that this last description was not what we experienced.  We got the continual rain bit, and at times the monsoon bit.  However, we are told this was an anomaly.  One of our hosts in Boquete said that of his 20 years in Panama, the days that we were there were the longest stretch of time without the sun.  And the weather apps confirm this – there had not been a tropical storm/hurricane so late in the season, in this part of the Caribbean since 1969.

The weather largely didn’t stop us though.  Despite the rain, we mostly continued the activities that we had planned (or tried to) – that’s what raincoats are for and we’re not made of sugar.  Some of the activities were actually made better because of the rain – our hikes had beautiful lush vegetation to enjoy, with plenty of flowers (although Jen often didn’t want to take out the good camera in the rain).

And when the weather definitely prevented us from doing something, we scouted out other adventures – from going honey tasting in Boquete to now getting to spend a few days around Medellin, Columbia, since we couldn’t sail to the San Blas (Jen’s still bummed on that last one though).

Plus, the rain (or to be more precise, Hurricane Otto), has now made for some good travel stories – from the mudslide that Erwan got stuck in walking to the hot springs to our emergency evacuation from Puerto Lindo (see previous posts on Boquete and San Blas respectively).

Lesson 3 – Panamanians love their flag

Jen, as an American, is used to seeing a national flag everywhere – on every public building, hanging outside people’s houses, and adorning people’s fashion.

To Erwan, as a French (who are still a very proud people), the American obsession with the flag is slightly odd.  In France, besides on public buildings, you only really see the tricolour elsewhere during Bastille Day.  Well, Erwan was not prepared for Panama!

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They love their flag – no, they LOVE their flag.  It is everywhere – a gigantic one flies on the hill above Panama City, it hangs outside people’s houses, most restaurants have at least one up, cars have multiple ones flying from the roof, and we even passed one building that had a field of them planted outside.

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The love of the flag was particularly evident when we watched the Panama vs. Mexico world cup qualifier soccer match.  During the national anthem, Panamanian players didn’t just put their hands to their hearts, they also held small flags and waved them proudly.

Lesson 4 – Panamanians enjoy exercise outside

Actually maybe this is just specific to Panama City, but we found the locals to be a pretty sporty bunch.  Our favourite sight in the Casco Viejo (old town) was actually watching grown men play baseball in the street.

They were copied by the children around the corner.

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Yet the most sports activity is seen in the evenings along the waterfront promenade that stretches from the old town to the commercial district.  Along this 4km stretch there were always runners, bikers, roller bladers, etc.  However throughout, they also have various sports courts (basketball, 5 a side soccer, tennis, volleyball) that were full to breaking point once the sun went down, as well as pavilions that were hosting dance or CrossFit classes.

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Athletic-wise, we felt very inferior along this stretch as we were just walking to dinner. . .

Lesson 5 – Despite the above, it is not pleasant for pedestrians

Oddly this joy of exercise did not extend to casual walking.  And possibly why the promenade was so busy, is because you really can’t enjoy those activities elsewhere in the city.

Now, I should mention that we’re walkers.  It’s our main form of exercise usually and thanks to us walking most places in London, neither of us really do much else in the way of exercise, let alone, belong to a gym.  We take this walking to our travels and will usually go by foot everywhere.

However, in Panama City, except for the Casco Viejo and the promenade referred to above, it was not pleasant to be a pedestrian.  The pavement (sidewalk) was always uneven and often non-existent.  At junctions there would be a crazy long wait for a green man to cross and in many situations, we just had to run across multiple lanes of traffic to get to where we wanted to go.

Walking is such an anomaly here that whenever we were doing so, taxis assumed we were waiting for a lift and would stop to offer us transport. . .

Lesson 6 – Even when you do your research, the taxis also do theirs

While we walked a lot of places, we still tested out the local taxis (Panama City is yuge!).  They do not run meters, so you need to know roughly how much you expect to pay and then negotiate before starting your ride.  Well, Uber is here, so we would just use that or if not, it would give us a good estimate of the fare to bargain towards.  Yet when the surge started on Uber, we would go back to taxis and try to haggle, thinking it would be cheaper.  The answer is no – the taxi drivers are on it – they know when there’s a surge, so they align themselves with Uber to the dollar!

Oh and another car related tidbit!  In Panama, they have to change their registration plates every year.  We think some politician must be in the business of licence plates…

 Lesson 7 – Linked to the above, they love their (big) cars

As one can deduce from the above two lessons, they like their cars for getting around.  And not just any cars, they like their big cars (or in Panama City, also their luxury cars).  Like the flag obsession, it’s another trait that is shared with Americans.

We rented a car in Boquete and just went for the cheapest option – in Europe we usually still get an upgrade thanks to Erwan’s gold membership.  Well no upgrade this time, so we had a “toy car” that was routinely mocked by the locals and looked tiny in parking lots next to everything else.  There were many unpaved roads in and around Boquete, so something slightly bigger maybe would have helped, but it still did the job. . .

Lesson 8 – visiting the Canal is easy, but for the best experience do a bit of research

 Visiting the Panama Canal is really easy – you just need to rock up to the Miraflores locks and bam, giant boats are only feet away.  Any taxi can take you there and there’s even a public bus.

The locks let about 10-15 boats through a day and the journey takes about 8-10 hours to go through the canal and its 3 locks.  In theory that should leave plenty of time to plan your visit.  Well no, depending on tide, you might not actually see any boats.

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If you want to see them, check the boat times beforehand (most hostels or hotels will know), otherwise you might be waiting a long time.  We knew this trick and so only showed up to the locks in the afternoon, since the first boat would be coming through that day at 2pm.  There were other tourists there that were waiting for most of the morning.

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We however we were not as wise when trying to ride the canal train to Colon (it runs alongside the canal).  We asked locals about the train and were assured that it ran every day at 7:15 in the morning.  Well, “everyday” does not include Domingo, or Sunday.  Guess which day we wake up early to go take the train ride?

Lesson 9 – Erwan could have been Panamanian royalty

Everyone knows the Panama Canal was built by Americans.  Well it was actually begun originally by the French.  And in particular, by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who in the late 19th century charmed his way into convincing the locals that a canal would be a good idea.  He got the commission and began demolishing all the hard “mountains” that were in the way.

Well, Lesseps was the great uncle of Erwan’s maternal grandmother (at least this is what he was told when driving down Boulevard Ferdinand de Lesseps in Versailles, as a child).

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Sadly, Lessep went bust, had to declare bankruptcy, abandoned the project and then sold it to the Americans at a fraction of the cost. . .

Lesson 10 – Coffee economics

Everyone knows of fair trade coffee and most brand name shops proclaim their commitment to such.  Well a bit of math behind that:

The average pound of coffee is bought from source for only $2 per pound (Starbucks routinely pays $1.90).  When sold at your local coffee shop by the cup, this same pound of coffee will bring in about $100.  Yes, there’s various overheads in between, but that’s a high mark up!

At $2 per pound, the average coffee grower still lives in poor conditions (usually without electricity).  The coffee plantation that we visited sells their coffee for $10 per pound, which allows their workers to live decent lives – and even then, the owner said that he’s able to do better than most farms because of the coffee tours he offers. . .

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So that’s what we learnt in Panama – or at least what we have reflecting on thus far.  That’s the thing about travel, it keeps giving you little tidbits to go back to, enjoy, relate to and share.

Despite all the weather chaos, we still thoroughly enjoyed our time in Panama.  We met some great people – locals and fellow travellers and had some amazing experiences that we will remember for years to come.  And we will be back!  At the very least, the San Blas are still on Jen’s bucket list. . .

Oh and not mentioned above, in Panama City check out the Biomuseum (designed by Gehry) and take a tour to see the monkeys around the canal.  On that, we leave you with one of Jen’s favourite photos:

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And speaking of cheeky monkeys, I think we also witnessed some chicken theft in the old town. . .

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Adios Panama!

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