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Bienvenidos a Panama!

Our first day in Panama…

…all the things we thought were interesting, odd, and helpful. We’re hoping that the information we’ll be sharing from our 3 1/2 week journey will be at least a little helpful to those who may be interested in coming to Panama. I know that for us, we found it difficult to research the country without finding conflicting information at every turn. On that note, the most true-to-life information we’ve found thus far has been from our guidebook: Moon Handbooks: Panama by William Friar. He really knows his stuff!

Moon Handbooks: Panama

If you’d like the short version of this post, feel free to just watch the video. It’s just the most important parts. 🙂

First day in Panama video:

Tocumen International Airport

We weren’t able to see the Panama Canal as we had heard we might, as we descended into Panama City. Still, the Panama City skyline was magnificent, as were the cloud forests that we flew over just before landing.

panama coastline

The airport itself was pretty standard on the outside and inside, aside from being rather outdated and somewhat dirty. There were small pieces of trash strewn here and there on the floor and the chairs were falling apart and stained. The people we encountered in the airport were all smiles and I knew immediately that we were in a very friendly country. Immigration and customs was a breeze.

Waiting at Immigration

As soon as we stepped through a door (that you couldn’t tell was a door and took us a few embarrassing seconds to discover), we were bombarded by taxi drivers vying for our business. We chose the most earnest person and 3 or 4 guys quickly grabbed our bags and loaded us up.

Outside was our first taste of culture shock. The street right out front was torn up and cracked everywhere, like it had seen it’s share of earthquakes. Taxis lined the street, but not the kind we’re used to seeing. These were unmarked European looking vehicles. The humidity was obvious, but not shocking, having lived in Central Texas for the last 2 years. The fact that it was only 85 degrees actually made it more bearable than the Texas summers!

The Drive to Panama City

The driver was friendly enough, but maybe that was his way of pre-earning our forgiveness for the ride he was about to subject us to. I still don’t know how we managed to get to our hotel without at least getting into a fender bender. I thought Houston drivers were scary! I’ve never gasped for air so many times in a half hour period. It cost us $33 for the trip from the airport to the El Cangrejo district, which I heard is one of the more expensive routes around town. Cab fare should be very inexpensive while we’re getting around town ($3-$5).

Some of the random things we noticed on our drive were: a McDonald’s, lush jungle-like foliage everywhere, 2 toll booths (between the airport and downtown Panama City), slums like you’d see on “Slumdog Millionaire” except nearly every one had a satellite dish on the roof, gasoline at $1.03 gallon (regular) and the “Red Devil” buses, which are sketchy buses decorated with graffiti, streamers, Christmas lights or whatever else is festive.

The Saba Hotel


I’ll talk about the limited parts of the downtown area that we’ve seen in a moment, but first, the hotel. The Saba Hotel stands apart in this neglected downtown area, and is a newer hotel with an upgraded IKEA feel. It’s small, clean, simple, but very comfortable. The employees are quite friendly and have been helpful so far. The room is small, with just enough room for 2 queen beds, a desk, dresser, small closet and bathroom (with an oversized shower!) One thing did stand out that we haven’t seen before; the key card is also controls the air conditioning and light power. There’s a little card holder near the remote for the wall-mounted A/C unit and overhead light fixtures which, when removed, shuts them off. Bill-saver!

Our room is in the back of the hotel, which we heard is nice if you prefer quiet over street noise, but don’t mind looking at ugly buildings. That’s accurate. There’s no view, but it’s really quiet.

View from our room

Downtown Panama City: first impressions

While we’re here, we really wanted to get a good feel for the area. We really have become fond of the country in the past couple of months, but we enjoy the city from time to time, so we decided to wander around the area. Via Argentina which is the street our hotel is on is a main drag, so it’s quite busy. You won’t see a lot of nice, updated buildings. Most buildings look dingy. Several large building are completely gutted leaving only facades.


The streets are in decent shape, but the sidewalks look like someone went jackhammer happy. We found ourselves navigating around trash, torn-up sidewalks and cars parked halfway into the street, leaving no room to walk around except to walk out into the street. Not kid-friendly.

The trash situation is nasty. There are these metal and wire cage things that are their version of dumpsters. They open to the sidewalk, so when they’re full, the gate is left open, leaving trash to spill out onto the sidewalk. It’s quite stinky and frankly, gross. Turns out, it was trash night. At about 7pm, in the dark, we saw garbage trucks driving down the street. Hopefully tomorrow is less aromatic.


We definitely felt like we “stuck out” as we walked around. Not only were there very few pedestrians, but as expected, not a lot of “gringos” and very few people wearing shorts, as we were. The dress here was something we knew we’d need straightening out on once we got here. We read a lot of conflicting information, but once we were here, we realized that most of the reports we read were true. Panama is a very… conservative? Actually, I’m not sure how to describe it. So far, the uniform seems to be as follows: skinny jeans and silky see-through blouses or a suit for women and either suits or jeans and a polo shirt for men. In our shorts, we definitely look like tourists. We’re continuing on in our shorts, though. It’s not offensive to them, but there are certain places you can’t go when you’re wearing shorts (i.e. banks, nice restaurants, etc.) We have other clothes if those places become necessary to enter.

Speaking of restaurants…

After our walk, we decided to eat at the restaurant next door: Angels. We walked in and were immediately turned away because of our attire (still in shorts and flip-flops.) Oops! I have to admit that I’m a little nervous about eating the food. The restaurants all seem old and not “up to code”, and in Texas, I wouldn’t set foot in the few places that look like the majority of restaurants here.

We ended up eating at the hotel restaurant, Bamboo Grill. Of all things, our first night in Panama, we ate Indian food. It was tasty, but seemed like a heat-and-serve sort of meal. Our waitress didn’t speak any English, so we had the opportunity to try our tongues at Spanish, which was laughable. We swore to get better. 10% gratuity was automatically added to our bill, which we read is common.

City Park

After dinner, we decided to let the boys burn off some excess energy at the park across the street. It had humongous, large-leaf trees everywhere, providing shade and beauty to the park. You can hear birds everywhere, but we haven’t seen any that have wowed us. I’m sure we’ll see more species as we get out of the city.

There were a series of play structures that were on the right, that ran from the front to the back of the park. The structures certainly were not city-regulated, as we’re used to. They either looked like they were handmade and painted or metal, like the kind we had at school when were kids in the 80′s. On the left side of the park were sport courts and exercise machines, you know, the kind you sometimes see along the paths in city parks? They were clustered together and several young guys were working out. The park seemed to attract more people later in the evening and at that point, we saw a lot more shorts as people were running on the path around the edge of the park, or playing basketball or soccer. After the sun went down, the park was still alive with activity and was very well lit.


Day 1 ended with us surviving the mosquitoes, but with a few no-see-um bites. Not bad! We also met a lady in the hotel lobby who recently moved to Panama from San Francisco. She is staying in the hotel for awhile and has been feeding us great tips on getting a taxi, good restaurants to try and where the good deals are for clothing and jewelry! Tomorrow should be fun as we begin to explore these places. Oh, and she assured me that the food and water are safe here. She has never gotten sick. I feel more confident now.

Buenas noches from Panama City!

P.S. The best part of this vacation is that we’re paying cash for everything! No more credit card vacations for us!