Panama: Unplanned & Unprepared

Hour 47: As we stare absent-mindedly out the shattered window onto heavy rain, jungle, and abundance of Copa airplanes we wonder: how did we get here…? “Let’s just fly to Panama and lay by the beach – Canada is too cold.” It’s November and we wanted to get in one more trip before the holidays. Somewhere quick. We explored the idea of heading down to Tikal in Guatemala but realized it was pricey. Brooke has been to Belize, and Nicaragua seemed too complicated. So Panama it was.

Brooke has a friend from Panama who gave us a hotel recommendation, so as soon as we got our days off confirmed we booked the hotel. Looks cute – authentic. Brynn googled “Things to do in Panama City” which turned up TripAdvisor: Casco Viejo – 5 stars. Looks beautiful, let’s go. The other day we’ll just go to the beach (because you know, Panama is surrounded by water so beaches MUST be readily accessible). Flying standby you always run the risk of not making the flight, so sometimes it’s best to not get your hopes up. Hence little planning for our 48 hour trip.

November 27th arrives while we are on our respective planes from Seattle and Denver enroute to Houson. Ese el la día de Panamá.

After hours spent in the Houston airport trying to catch some zzz’s, we chowed down on a Cinnabon (typical) and are ready to board our flight to Panama. We are super excited for our mini, unplanned Sister Trip and can’t wait to see a new country. Everything should go according to plan (or at least the plan we didn’t plan that was still in our heads). Brooke had booked an airport transfer through a company associated with the hotel, so it should be self-explanatory once we land in Panama City, one would assume. We arrive, get our photo and fingerprints taken (strange), and head towards the public transportation. After looking around not seeing our name on a sign we head to the information desk: “Hi! Do you speak English?” No, Español. Ok, so Brooke switches into Spanish mode. Finally we get the lady to call the hotel for us, a confusing and only semi-understood conversation takes place between Spanish Brooke and the lady at the Hotel Parador. “He’s coming.” Maybe 5 minutes later a man shows up with a sign printed “BROOKE LARSON” on it. We follow him to the van and climb in. That’s when the fiesta starts.

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Spanish Brooke looks confused.

We get to our hotel, check in, pick our room (again, strange), and immediately shed off our winter clothes into our 85° and sunny clothes. Hellooooo Panama. Now to start exploring. Brynn tells Brooke “let’s check out the Casco Viejo thing and then maybe tomorrow we can check out a beach…even though I didn’t really see any….” Ok so we google the best way to get to the old city, and turns out they have a very nice metro system in Panama City. We walked to the station, passing many BLACK WEEK signs outside every large shop. Ah, the celebration of Black Friday must have rubbed off here as well. Black Week…an interestingly NOT PC way to put things, but carry on. We get to the metro station and a friendly (one of the 2 friendly Panamanians we met) man assists us with buying tickets. Only $2 each round trip, what a steal. The metro is brand new so it was very clean. We get off at our stop (Cinco de Mayo – HOLLA!) and then start aimlessly walking around. No crosswalks are to be found, so it seemed, so we did as the Panamanians and booked it through traffic, being catcalled and honked at all the way (not because we were in their way, but because Brynn’s white legs probably momentarily blinded them – Seattle living…). The city itself is not like European cities. The streets were more chaotic and the building materials on the ground were ever changing. One step was on concrete, the next two inch tile flooring, the next step laminate. Brynn finally convinced Brooke to stand in one place and look at a map. After searching the internet for a good map (google maps was no help, per usual) we came up short. Brynn looked up and noticed two also very white people walking towards us with big backpacks. “Do you guys speak English?” the girl responded “yes” with an accent. They were from Germany and were also on the road to Casco Viejo. So they let us creepily follow them. The streets were so loud and narrow we didn’t get much of a chance to talk to them and find out their story. But alas, we thought we found it. Who really knew exactly what we were looking for though? Not a single one of us.

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Random shot of the Panamanian streets (notice strange tile flooring on the right).

We awkwardly went our separate ways and Brooke drudgingly took out her camera and started snapping a few photos. We were in a colorful alley when the Germans found us again and told us that they had been warned “DO NOT GO THAT WAY. VERY DANGEROUS” just a block or two down. Thanks for the warning, Germany! So, we headed the opposite way and found ourselves in a nicer area. Stray cats were constantly tempting Brynn and eventually we again found the water. We were taking pictures on a cute bench when the heavens opened up. We took shelter in a nearby pizza place (yes…) and had some dinner. On the TV was, hilariously, the Seattle Sounders vs Colorado Rapids MLS game. The rain was not letting up, and although we were only 2.5 miles away from our hotel, we were not about to walk back (especially since the sun had set as well). So we get on our phones again and try to find the nearest metro stop, hoping there was one closer than Cinco de Mayo. VIOLA they have Uber in Panama City. And, if you pay an extra couple bucks, you can have UberENGLISH. Worth it. We call an Uber and wait out in the rain for 30 seconds for Ernesto to arrive.

We get into the car, and Ernesto greets us with a friendly attitude. “Hello girls! How is your night?” um, cold and wet. “How long are you in Panama for??” Brynn answers with “ha one day! We leave Tuesday…just got in this afternoon.” Ernesto was kind of confused, but went straight to business “what do you plan on doing??” well, we were thinking about going to see the Panama Canal, do you think we should buy a tour and where would we do that? “NO NO no don’t buy a tour, I’ll take you! Tomorrow?” Ahhhh yes. We agree on a price and a time and Ernesto tells us more about what we are passing currently. “on your right is the old embassy of the Vatican. That’s where our dictator, Manuel Noriega, hid from American troops during the invasion in 1989. Finally he surrendered and now the Vatican has a new embassy.” He told us all about how the Americans had a lasting influence on Panama because of their 95 year occupation as we drove past a Tony Roma’s, SmashBurger, and of course, McDonald’s “AutoMac” (drive-thru). He told us about the app Appetito24 that you can download to get delivery from any food place at any time.

Downloaded.

Ordered.

Milkshakes from SmashBurger and spinach and artichoke dip from Ruby Tuesdays were on our late night agenda. We sat on our patio and ate our food listening to the rain pound on the pavement. Later that night, Brynn watched the Broncos game in Spanish and watched them lose in overtime…Bummer.

8AM the next morning, we head downstairs for our breakfast. The breakfast list was quite nice! – I think – and we end up ordering a grilled cheese (?) and some toast. Then we head to the lobby and wait for Ernesto to pick us up.

“Hi Brynn! Hi Brooke!” Gosh he’s so damn nice. First stop, Panama Canal. On the way Ernesto points out which buildings were “american builds” and “we’ve only changed the color, nothing else” since they were built all those years ago. Panama is a large country for retirees, so old American military barracks have been made into mansions for retired expats. While Ernesto was explaining Panamanian history to us while navigating through the rainy streets, we noticed an abundance of Panama flags all over. On houses, on the streets, near the highway, off of buildings. Everywhere. Ernesto explained that November is the month of Panama independence! And that today, November 28th, they celebrate one of two independence days, this one specifically from Spain. (The second Independence day – called Separation Day – is celebrated on November 3rd from Colombia).

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Open area with tons of Panama flags

We arrived at the Panama Canal just in time to see the entire process in motion! We were the lucky tourists who had our own tour guide explaining the process to us in more detail than what was being described on the loud speaker. Ernesto made us push towards the front so we could get a good view, and he hung back and let us enjoy. Once he believed we had seen what we needed, he made sure to snap a few photos of us from every angle (can we keep him?? He’s the perfect WanderBrother), he brought us down to watch the 10 minute video explaining the history of the Canal, and then took us through the museum narrating all the while. 

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Large boat going through the canal
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Standing in a scale model of one of the pipes that transfers water for the canal. The canal relies on gravity alone to move the water to lift ships. Impressive.
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I wish this was how all voting was. Sí? o No.

Next stop was a daylight tour of Casco Viejo! We realized the previous night we actually never made it there… so good thing we met Ernesto to show us the ways! Unfortunately, since we were there on a holiday, the churches and important buildings were not open to the public. But we still got to see the important sights from the comfort of the air conditioned car, snapping touristy photos out the window. Such Americans. Like Ernesto promised, he took us to a souvenir shop to find some unique treasures. And boy did we find some unique shoes! Brooke knew immediately she had to have them, and Brynn thought the same. The nice lady at the store pulled out our shoe sizes so we could find our favorites. Unlike the many options Brynn had, since Brooke’s feet are so large she only had one pair that fit her. But that’s okay, she was sold on them anyways.

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I mean, could YOU go to Panama and not buy shoes like these?!
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The beautiful Golden Altar that has stunned visitors for centuries & was one of the few items saved in 1671 from a pirate siege.

 

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Next stop was going to be Ancon Hill, the tallest hill in Panama City with a great lookout. Unfortunately, as we were driving up the hill, we were stopped and found out it was closed due to the Independence Day. Ernesto, after grumbling in Spanish, told us that for some reason the government has control over the hill and therefore it is closed even though there was no signage saying so. Just a guard standing watch, shaking his head at cars trying to attempt the gate. So we turned around and headed to the Causeway. 

The Causeway in Panama connects 3 “islands” that existed just outside the city. They used only the rocks from building the canal to create this sort of land bridge. It is only 2 lanes of traffic, so Ernesto said we were very lucky traveling during the holiday as there were far fewer cars out and about. A lot of Panamanians were seen riding bikes down the sidewalk along the Causeway, enjoying the sunshine. If there is one thing us Larson girls like, is a good photo op. And let me tell you, Ernesto brought us to the best one! There it was, a giant Panamá sign that has Panama City in the back. We parked the car (in a construction zone that was empty because – holiday) and got out to go to the giant sign full of tourists. We waited for a little bit, and suddenly everyone left and we had the sign all to ourselves! Good thing we had Ernesto, our personal photographer. We walked over to a man with a little cart that had a huge slab of ice. He was shaving off ice and filling it with flavors. We thought um yes please! It even came with Malted Milk and condensed milk… strange but delicious. Ernesto treated us to these little shaved ice treats, and we enjoyed the cold dessert in the shade while looking at the view of Panama City. 

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Almost got the whole P
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Desserts and scenery
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Brynn had Raspberry and Brooke had Strawberry – clearly 😉

Ernesto then drove us back and dropped us off near our hotel, at a great Panamanian restaurant. And as we said our goodbyes, Ernesto gave Brynn a bunch of Panamanian coins (which are the exact size, shape, and value as the American coins – they don’t have their own paper currency). Ernesto insisted he take us to the airport in the morning. We at a late lunch/dinner at the restaurant, got a phone number from a Venezuelan man (yep), and then walked back to the hotel. Little did we know, tomorrow would be a frustrating day.

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Finally found the rooftop pool on our last night…

Tuesday arrives and we get up and meet Ernesto to head to the airport for our 9:55AM flight. We pull up to the airport and take a lovely picture with our favorite Panamanian and step inside where Christmas was being unpacked. Brooke says “eh, let’s not go to the ticket counter, I’m sure we’re fine. It let us check in” She has had a hard time checking in for international flights in the past but this time it seemed all was well. We were wrong. We head to security and there is absolutely no line. Brynn doesn’t take off her belt, necklaces, or watch because she doesn’t have to any longer in the States. Well, she got a pretty good pat down by the security agent. Then Brynn’s bag had to be inspected…so she waits patiently. The lady quickly scrounged through her makeup bag until she finally found what she was searching for “pokes!” she looks at Brynn, Brynn looks at her. “Oh. My tweezers. Hmm…ok.” Confiscated and frustrated but whatever. Let’s head to the gate. So we do, attempt to get on the “free” wifi and wait until our flight starts boarding. Then we look up from our phones and notice that our gate has been roped in. They advise everyone who is going to Houston needs to leave the gate area and once it is cleared, they need to go back through a makeshift security they had set up in the area. **SO MUCH EYE ROLLING GOING ON HERE BUT OK** Brynn doesn’t learn and keeps her necklace, belt, watch on again. This time the security agent got handfuls of her lady lumps.

Note: if you do not need a breast screening in Panama, take off your damn necklace.

We again go back to waiting. Standbys are being cleared and Brooke goes up to get our seat assignments. Brynn watches from her phone and as Brooke runs towards her Brynn starts to say “hell no we’re not sitting in row 12, there’s a whole row 11 empty!” Brooke’s face did not say OK, she said “they’re not letting us on. we didn’t pay taxes. RUN”. A strew of cuss words comes out of Brynn’s mouth as they start running where they have to pay taxes – the ticket counter. Yes folks, the ticket counter is the one where you check your bags and THEN proceed through security. A gate agent tries to stop us to tell us we can’t make it back in time and a frustrated and sleep deprived Brynn yells “YOURE the one who’s holding us back”. Oops. Next frustrating task will be to clear customs (because we have to go all the way back out to get back in…) with agents that don’t speak any English. We rush downstairs and everyone is very confused as to why two white girls are out of breath and are running through customs, trying to get to Houston? Anyway, that ended up being the smallest hurdle. After your clear customs, you know you have to go through all those other hoops. We get to the one where you get to scan your bags again and you’re supposed to turn in your customs forms – well, we don’t have them obviously. We’re trying to LEAVE this country, not stay. Believe me. Well, the customs agents didn’t care. They made us fill them out (sorry, you got a bunch of BS from both of us). And then we were free to go back upstairs to the ticket counter. United Airlines’s ticket counter – might I add – is at the VERY end. Brynn leaves Brooke and her broken suitcase in the dust and tries to track down a ticket agent. No where to be seen of course, the next United flight doesn’t leave until 3:30…

After two failed attempts of asking (very very politely) American Airlines ticket agents about where they hay the United ones were, finally a ramp guy helped us and made us follow him into the back. Then he rang the doorbell for us and walked away. United agent came over the speaker “Hello?” Um hi we need to pay taxes??? *click* Open Sesame I guess. So we go in and they are partially sympathetic, partially like you guys didn’t read did you. LESSON LEARNED. He says “no you will not make this flight, so, I’ll put you on the 3:30PM flight, like he was doing us a favor. Ok. After 20 minutes of waiting for them to pay our taxes ($40 per person!!) we sit in the ticket area for probably an hour contemplating our lives. Brynn tried to convince Brooke to uber to a nearby beach (and by nearby I mean an hour away) but we finally agreed no, because suitcases + sand = just as bad as this aeropuerto.

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Contemplating: beach or no beach, that is the question.
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Tocumen Airport…………

Back through security we go (almost comical at this point) and you can bet your bottom Panamanian dollar that Brynn took off ALL accessories. She learns, just after many failed attempts. And we wait. In the food court, naturally. And we start this blog. And Brynn orders a cheeseburger (from Carl’s JR, of course) fully in Spanish! So proud. Finally time has arrived to be roped off and then shuffled back through security and the whole 9 yards. Security clearance number 4: Brooke now gets her bag searched. I guess the 4th time was the charm. Nothing confiscated, but her “BROOKE LARSON” paper from our initial arrival was awkwardly displayed. We get on the plane and head to Houston. We land early (yay!) and then realize we can catch earlier flights – Brooke can get home before midnight and Brynn can just get home that night. So we run through customs (super fast anyway, shout out to IAH – love ya) make jokes with our nice, understanding TSA agents (not sarcasm, they’re actually really sweet and funny these days), and start running to our gates, hug it out and keep running in opposite directions. Brooke made her early flight to Denver and Brynn made a flight to San Francisco to then continue on to Seattle, arriving at 1AM. On the last flight, many reflecting was done by both parties. What a whirlwind of a trip we just experienced! We learned many lessons (TAXES), explored and mostly enjoyed a new country, and you will probably only see posts from Europe in the short term future. 🙂 ❤

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WE LOVE YOU ERNESTO
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