17 – 20 December 2011
Our visit to Panama started with a three hour wait in the middle of the night trying to clear customs. We had decided to take a 15 hour overnight bus from San Jose to Panama City but hadn´t anticipated such long delays on entering Panama. It was the most tedious border crossing we have experienced yet on our trip, culminating in the entire bus having to remove their luggage from the bus, pile into a tiny room, line up the bags for uninterested sniffer dogs, and complete a primary school-like role call. Finally we were allowed over the frontier and continued on our way to Panama City.
After finding a hospedaje on Central Avenue, we set off to explore the city. Sadly, the weather we had been fleeing from in Costa Rica followed us south and we had heavy rain for much of our stay in Panama. (Apparently that´s a good thing though, as they need the rain water to keep the canal operating properly.) As we explored the wet streets of Casco Viejo (the city´s historic centre), we stumbled across an amazing ice cream shop, Granclement, close to the seafront. With a vast array of flavours to choose from, it was just what the doctor ordered to take our minds off the rain and the fatigue from our journey.
The next day we set off early, with the intention of getting to the Miraflores visitor centre on the Panama Canal between 9 and 11am which is supposed to be the busiest period for observing the boats pass through. Our plans were scuppered though by our understanding of the public transport system. Nobody we asked knew of the bus the Lonely Planet recommended which went straight to the Lock from downtown and instead they suggested we take a bus to the terminal and change there. So, we happily jumped on the bus marked Terminal, not realising it had just come from there and was now headed out east. Realising our mistake about an hour later, we caught another bus back in the right direction, this time making it to the bus station. Unfortunately, we were now too late for our planned boat watching slot so we killed time in Panama´s largest shopping mall until the afternoon´s slot.
When we did finally arrive at the Miraflores Lock, it was well worth our persistence. The site offers an excellent visitor centre which recounts the history of the building of the canal as well as the expansion plans which were recently begun. The Lock has a viewing platform so you can see vessels passing through the locks and understand how they work. While we were there, we saw a container ship, cruise liner and oil tanker all pass through. It costs the average ship $110,000 to use the canal but I suppose that´s money well spent when you consider the alternative.
Our final evening in Panama was spent by candelight. On returning to our hostel to pack our bags for the trip to Colombia, we discovered there was a power cut and we were given a candle to last us until power was restored. It was certainly interesting, though not necessarily romantic, getting all our things together with the light of a single candle. What with the rain, the transport issues and finally the power – I think we were both ready to move on to our next destination, Colombia!