Panama City, city of Love Hotels!

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
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Where I stayed
Residencial El Paraiso

Flag of Panama  ,
Monday, March 12, 2007

Tough as it was to leave Boca Brava, we had to get to Panama to get some date changes on our ticket back to the USA. Mitch was good enough to give us a lift into David as he needed to shop there anyway. Express bus after that to Panama City, nice and easy.

The ticketing stuff sorted, we threw our backpacks into a taxi and the driver called Jimmy (but in Spanish, Yimmy) drove us around the old town Casco Viejo looking for a reasonable budget hotel. Viewing Casco Viejo across the water from Panama City central it appeared like a slice of Venice transplanted in Central America.

Panama seems to be a "city of contrasts" (to use a cliched term). There is the old town, and nearby the waterfront surrounded by high-rises housing flashy businesses and luxury apartments. Amongst these, neglected sixties-style apartments and nearby tree-lined streets with attractive low-rise buildings. Private security guards carrying semi-automatic weapons are a common sight.

The old town is really coming into its own after being sacked by pirates in the distant past. Luxury boutique hotels neighbour with stylish cafes, restaurants and artesania shops. Many buildings are restored works of art but these sit alongside the odd apartment block that has peeling plaster, crooked washing lines, grubby children and stray dogs.

Jimmy takes us to three affordable hotels in the old town listed in our guide book. One has closed down, the second Ed looked at and we both had a bad feeling about. The third he questioned a policeman about before we went there. Our Spanish was good enough by this stage to understand that it wasn´t recommended either, as someone had been murdered there the previous week!

At this stage, Jimmy offered to take us to a good value hotel he knew. Normally we would never take a taxi recommendation from a cabbie because they are often looking to line their own pocket, but we had chatted enough with Jimmy by now and thought he seemed genuinely concerned for our welfare.

The sun was low in the sky which hid what would be obvious tomorrow, the hot pink exterior of the hotel. The hotel also initially prompted more questions than answers:

* why the extremely low lighting in reception?
* why were we being asked how many hours we wanted the room?
* why would none of the guests in reception meet our gaze?
* why didn´t anybody else have luggage with them?
* why were there cleaners working at 6pm at night?

We dumped our bags in the spotless room, checked the availability of hot water - great shower, kicked our shoes off and sat on the comfortable bed. We thought what a great recommendation from Jimmy, all this for $15 USD a night, great location in the capital city and cable TV too!

I flicked on the TV as I find that watching English programmes with subtitles is a great way to improve my Spanish. Unfortunately, there was no language on the only channel I found - just hard-core porn.

"Ed, can you please tell reception that there´s a problem with the cable TV - there´s only 1 channel working and I don´t like it"

Then, the penny dropped - we were in a hot pink love hotel.

You would think the name of the hotel would have been a clue - ´Residencial El Paraiso´ complete with love hearts on the business card - but when you are tired from a long trip you´re not always the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Next day, as we left our hot pink hotel we noticed the neighbouring hotels were called Residencial Eden and Adam & Eve, we were in a love hotel district. We stayed in El Paraiso for 3 nights, finding it good value and super-clean! The only downside - we learned to walk through the corridors quickly as they weren´t as sound-proof as our room...

PANAMA CANAL

With our ever-improving Spanish we have little need for organised tours anymore. We jumped on a city bus out to the nearby canal as Ed was really keen to see it. Two huge ships were passing by the canal while tourists snapped photos eagerly. Notes from Ed´s diary:

´Locks giant. Even ´though I am expecting the size it is still impressive´

I am distinctly underwhelmed, maybe it is because I don´t appreciate the engineering involved. To me, it is just like Camden Locks in London or any other locks on the big canal system in the UK but bigger. What does make an impression on me ´though is hearing about the huge loss of life during the construction of the canal. Also, alongside the canal there is forest right down to the water effectively preserving a type of nature corridor alongside the giant man-made construction.

We went to the movies that night, a special treat after weeks of being in towns too small to have theatres. The theatre was almost empty and Ed greeted the only other man in there with a Buenos Noches and an attempt at humour (yes, he thinks he is a bit of a comedian in Spanish too!).

Later, while we stood outside in the dark with the security guards waiting for a taxi, this elderly man pulled up in his sleek new car and offered us a lift. We were careful to have him drop us off near our love hotel, not at it!

A lovely guy, his generosity further reinforced our high opinion of Panamanians.

SOBERANIA NATIONAL PARK

Tiring a little of the hustle and bustle of Panama´s biggest city, we took a taxi to nearby Soberania National Park a forested area with plenty of hiking trails (or tramping, for you New Zealanders). With the temperature around 30 we were pleased that for most of the 12km hike the forest canopy gave us some shade. Guidebooks say that this place has the most recorded bird species in a small area and we did see some hard-core twitchers (bird-watchers) on the trail complete with humungous lenses on their cameras, enormous tripods, sound-recording equipment and a local guide. These guys were serious!

For our part, we saw eagles, woodpeckers with red crests, black birds with white beaks and yellow tails, hummingbirds and parrots. The insect life was diverse too with leaf-cutter ants, bees, lanky spiders, huge blue morph butterflies and the largest and most colourful collection of irridescent dragonflies we have ever seen. We also saw an agouti (rodent-like thing), a racoon-type creature, large lizards and our favourite sighting - a pair of white-faced monkeys swingin from the trees. We found it incredible that we could see all on a short day hike minutes from a huge, thriving city.

Later we met 4 Spanish guys (three of whom spoke worse English than our Spanish). and shared a taxi and conversation, realising that our Spanish had stepped up a notch or two. However, the native speakers came to the fore when the taxi drivers tried to charge us 6 x the agreed price!

Later that afternoon, we strolled around the old town sampling the local ice-cream and shaved flavoured ice from the street vendors. There were San Blas islanders there selling colourful textiles. These indigenous people developed a unique culture through being geographically separated from the mainland. Not having visited there, we know very little about it but their indigenous dress is striking. The women wear colourful skirts, scarves and a blouse called a ´mola´ made from many layers of multi-coloured materials. They also wear sandals with what look like knee-high socks from a distance but are actually strings and strings of multi-coloured beads wrapped around their calves.

We managed to call Ed´s parents from outside the local police station while the bored and friendly policeman repeated ´Hello, how are you´ in what sounded like plummy English tones. Calling NZ at $1 USD/minute just wasn´t an option!
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