Killing time in Panama City

Having arrived in Panama City just over a week ago, we’ve had quite a bit of time in the city. It started off pretty lazily with time to relax in the luxurious Trump Hotel for Katrina’s birthday and it’s continued as we await our boat that will take us to Colombia via the San Blas Islands.

In my last blog post I mentioned all I really knew of Panama as a country was the canal prior to my visit. Well the same applies for the city, I wasn’t sure what to expect. After 3 months in Central America, plus a couple of weeks in Cuba before that it came as a shock to the system as the bus rolled over the Bridge of the Americas and the city skyline came into view. No other city so far has had buildings like this, nor have we seen anywhere as much construction work as appears to be taking place here.

As part of our stay in the Trump (which is also the tallest building in Latin America – for now), we were lucky enough to be taken to the top floor and shown around the penthouse apartment. 5* Birthday Service and the view wasn’t too bad either!

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I’ll be honest, we didn’t do a whole heap in the Trump with the exception of lazing by their infinity pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean and eating one the best meals ever in their restaurant, Tejas. If you like fish and you’re in Panama City then treat yourself. There’s more about that in Katrina’s blog here.

Following our weekend of luxury, I admit to feeling like it was back to reality with a bump as we left the Trump and found a hostel in the old town, Casco Viejo. It’s a very pretty part of Panama City that in ways resembles bits of Havana. However, at the moment it’s … well … a bit of a building site.

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Despite the workers taking breaks to play football they’re pretty hard working as the noise goes on quite late and starts rather early. That said, you have to appreciate the effort to restoring buildings that are near to collapse and in time I’m sure it will be gracing the cover of the Sunday Times Travel section and so on.

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After all, how many other cities in the world can you see a Sunday afternoon baseball game on the beach?

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Throughout this trip, we’ve been rather laid back when it comes to planning ahead. This kind of showed when it came to looking for a boat to Colombia. Following a trip to the canal I was pretty convinced we’d be able to blag our voyage on a container ship. That turns out to have been a bit optimistic, though I still have hopes of doing so one day.

The way we finally decided on is by sail boat from the reputedly gorgeous San Blas islands for a few days followed by a 2 day open sea crossing to Colombia. The sea sickness pills have been purchased. By being slow to organise this, it left us with several days still in Panama City.

So what to do? Well I’ll be frank here, my clothes smell a bit and it’s really hot and humid. So we went to the mall. Blah blah blah – you’re not seeing the local culture etc. Well there’s lots of malls in this city so there.

One of the things that I liked the most (in my geeky business graduate way) was the targeted advertising many big brands had to their stores in the city. This one for Converse stood out to me as well as another for Hermes featuring an old Red Devil bus (sadly I didn’t have my camera for that one).

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Sadly a few months travelling has made me a cheapskate so half the items I actually bought in Panama City have come from Avenue Central and feel like they’ve fallen off the back of a passing container ship. For example, a $3 bright red digital watch. If it lasts 2 weeks I’ll be stunned.

The mall wasn’t a total waste however, we were able to bask in the gloriously over air conditioned cinema to see The Dictator. If you love crude comedy by Sasha Baron Cohen then I recommend you watch – a bargain here at just $2.50 each. Further, we got to go bowling at the world’s most slippery alley – well that’s my excuse anyway for not scoring over 104.

I’ll return to the more unique aspects of the city shall I? Well following a feeling of guilt from being lazy and gluttonous it seemed a little walk was in order. This took us to Parque Metropolitano on a swelteringly humid day. The park is more of a mini jungle in the middle of the city where there are deer, monkeys, sloths, 250 types of birds and so on. We saw a weird guinea pig type creature, a woodpecker, several butterflies and a grasshoppper (what can I say – I’m not David Attenborough).

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Despite our efforts are nature watching, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the city skyline. Though it seems from the picture I was more interested in the clouds.

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As if to enhance the point about Panama City’s skyline and the nearby Canal, we also went for a walk along the Causeway. A 3km long strip of land reclaimed from the ocean with material from digging out the canal. From here you are provided with another beautiful view of the skyscrapers as well as ships entering and exiting the canal.

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To cool off from wandering around Panama, street vendors have the perfect treat – Raspados. Similar to a snow cone, these cups of shaved ice are flavoured with fruit syrup then topped with condensed milk and/or honey. I’m addicted, so it’s fortunate they’re only 50 cents.

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Our final little exploration in Panama City wasn’t quite so successful. We thought we’d try something a little different a get a taxi up to a temple atop a hill on the outskirts of the city. Panama City is home the Latin American centre for a religion known as Baha’i (I hadn’t heard of it either).

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As you’ll see it’s a rather curious looking building shaped like an egg. Sadly this is as close as we got to the temple as we were told it was closed for renovation work. We did however get to watch a video that made us feel like we were back in Religious Education classes at school – we giggled inappropriately.

And that pretty much brings us to a close with Panama City, a beautiful city (albeit much of it still being built!) that I am sure in years to come will be an even bigger tourism and business destination.

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An Early Morning with the Mayans

Incessant loud beeping from a mobile phone at 4.30am is just about my idea of hell, I’m not a morning person. I’m grouchy, dopey and virtually useless first thing in the morning. So I wasn’t in the best of moods when Katrina woke me by holding the noise to my ears!

Nor am I a particularly good person for travelling. I love going to places and I love different modes of transport but I have an incredibly short attention span so just over an hour on a hot minibus at this hour equally isn’t my idea of a good time. I just feel sorry for Katrina having to put up with me during this trip!

There was a good reason for being up this early however. One of the biggest attractions in Central America are the Mayans, or rather their ancient cities such as Tikal (where we were visiting), Chichen Itza and Copan of which we know comparatively little about. With this being the alleged year of impending doom according to many people predicting the apocalypse, there has been greater coverage in the media of the Mayans too.

By the time we’d arrived at the site the sun was baking down on the Guatemalan rain forest and it was only just after 6 in the morning. Getting used to the heat here is taking me some time – northern boys weren’t made warm weather!

When you arrive at Tikal, there is just a car park, a restaurant and a few stalls selling souvenirs. Apart from that, you can’t see anything else apart for the green of the forest, and before heading in we were introduced to Boris, our guide. I’m not entirely sure we’d booked a guide but Boris was pretty insistent we follow him so we did along with a handful of other tourists from Israel.

Looking back on this I sure am glad we were with him – Tikal is surrounded by dense forest which is navigable via a few pathways with relatively few signs. It’s definitely a good thing in terms of a getting what  feels like a more real experience however we were told of a tourist getting lost for 8 days in here some years ago.

As we walked Boris explained a little about the background to Tikal such as it potentially being home to over 100,000 people in its heyday 1,000 years ago or so as well as the fact all the forest which now surrounds it would not have been seen for miles around with the land used for agriculture. The best guess as to what happened at Tikal are that the people migrated further south into Guatemala due to drought or to flee stronger surrounding kingdoms.

By this time we had come to a ‘small’ pyramid in the jungle which we climbed to the top of, and already we could feel the strain. Curiously, the average Mayan person was only about 5ft 3in and the kings were maybe 5ft 9in – incredible given the steps to the top of these structures are at least 1ft in height each! Add in the fact the king would be draped in gold and jaguar skin (very bling) and I’m not sure they tried to fit into their surroundings.

A further walk through the jungle brought us to an incredibly large structure simply known as Temple IV and immediately we were eager to clamber up the rickety wooden steps to the top of it. Despite being so early in the morning the climb in the heat had both of us sweating and a little short of breath and the view took a little bit more of that away. Looking out from the temple across the expanse of jungle below all you can make out are a couple of other temples peaking over the tree canopy, the odd Macaw flying from tree to tree in the distance and a curious roar of which we did not know the source.

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I could have stayed at the top of that temple all day and just watched the day go by but there is a great deal more of Tikal to see before the sun becomes unbearably hot and at the same time taking advantage being one of the few people on the site.

Back on the ground I asked Boris what the noise was, to me it sounded like a lion or a dinosaur both of which would take you by surprise in the middle of Guatemala! He simply said it was a howler monkey and we could go find them and within a few minutes of the ever increasing roars there they were, high in the trees, defending their territory against another group of spider monkeys.

I’d heard of howler monkeys before but never realised just how appropriate their name was. They actually used the noise of these creatures to create the sound effects for dinosaurs in the movie Jurassic Park. And while we’re on the subject of movie trivia, Tikal was also the location of a small scene in Star Wars Episode IV.

Moving on through the forest from the monkeys we were coming to the main centre of Tikal where many temples are located and were left to explore on our own after some final information from Boris. Clambering over these kinds of things really does make you feel pretty good about yourself but you can only imagine how the explorers felt re-discovering these ruins amongst the rainforest.

Exploring temples can be exhausting!

A couple of hours of clambering and doing our own little exploration we’d grown tired and sat to reflect on what we had seen. I’ve been lucky enough to visit other ancient cities like Pompeii, Angkor Wat and Borobodur however I still find new ones just as impressive, although by this time I needed a huge drink of water – Lara Croft movies make these things look so much more glamourous!

BUT. The early morning was worth it.