Saturday, December 8, 2007

¡Viva Panama!

We bid farewell to Costa Rica on Wednesday. We said goodbye to Rocking J´s around noon - J gave us some beers for the road and invited us to return if we got the chance. Then it was a final walk through Puerto Viejo, drinking out of coconuts and having a leisurely time. The bus to the border took about an hour, and most of that time we were crammed into our seats with our bags on our laps. I still dont know why they didn't let us store them under the bus. We will miss Costa Rica, but it was really good to get moving on.

The border crossing was very cool. We had to get our exit stamp from Costa Rica, which took no time, then started into Panama. To do this you have to cross over a wide, muddy river. The only bridge is an old rail bridge built by the banana companies long ago with some boards thrown on top. A constant stream of people were going back and forth as we swayed over the river. The customs and immigration people in Panama were very bored-looking and we breezed through. They didn't even check if we had an ongoing ticket, which is good because we didn't have anything of the sort. An interesting side note is that the official currency of Panama is the US Dollar! No more figuring out exchange rates or converting prices.

After the border crossing we took a cab to the nearby town of Changuinola. This is the global headquarters of the Chiquita Banana Company, but it looks like some random slum thrown into the middle of the jungle. I was glad we only spent a few minutes there before cramming onto a small bus to David, on the Pacific side of the country. The bus across the continental divide was crowded and slightly dangerous as the driver had little regard for speed - especially when going around sharp corners at high altitude. After five hours or so we reached David, where the express shuttle to Panama City was waiting.

Of course, it cost $30 to get both of us to Panama City...and we only had $20. So I asked a cop where an ATM was, and that one was out of order. So I started walking around town asking people in stores (I figured asking people on the street was asking to get robbed). I finally found a working ATM, but it meant we had to wait for the Midnight bus to Panama. so we sat around until it was time to go. The express buses are large double decker rigs. They have comfy seats and air-conditioning. The thing is they have too much a/c. It is downright cold on those buses. So bring a blanket or something. Dave had no trouble sleeping, but I couldn't quite pull it off with a blast of cold air coming right down on me.

I was so happy when we finally got to Panama City and I could get off the bus. It was 7am and the temperature was a lovely 70 degrees. Yeah, it can get pretty hot here. We caught a cab to the middle of town, where the guidebook said our hostel was. It was only $4, cabs here run for real cheap, unlike CR, so it was worth it. Of course the hostel wasn't there, our guidebook is the 2004 version and it moved about 2km down Via España, one of the main streets here. So we walked, navigated with map and compass and found the place. After so many hours of traveling it was so nice to put our stuff down and take a shower. After all the cold showers in Costa Rica, this one was actually lukewarm! It is hard to describe how awesome little things like that really are. Cleaned and unburdened we headed out to explore the city.

Panama City, including the suburbs, is only 1 million people. However the place feels more like Seattle than Portland. There are a crapload of skyscrapers and it has a very international feel. We had brunch in a diner that almost resembled a Shari's. While there we ran into an Israeli guy we had met in Tamarindo named Nir. We chatted with him for a while, then he took a cab to the airport and we went to the waterfront, which is an interesting place. On the horizon you can see a mass of ships lining up to go through the Canal, while nearby there are local fisherman, plying the dirty waters of the bay. The skyscrapers come right down the to water, creating a strange man-made cliff face. The waves crash into the boardwalk and sometimes will send a huge spray up onto the sidewalk. The first time it happened Dave and I thought the sidewalk was collapsing. There was a big cracking sound then we saw white spray in our peripheral vision.

We followed this into the heart of downtown, where we had an afternoon snack. This consisted of sitting on couches on the sidewalk, smoking a hookah and drinking mint tea while eating fruits and Mediterranean appetizers. All the while the place next door was playing French jazz as a soundtrack. It was a surreal, yet incredibly enjoyable experience. After that we walked down to the old colonial district (Casco Viejo), bordered by slums to the west and the rest of the city to the east. While wandering Casco Viejo we walked right up to the doors of the Presidential Palace before realizing what it was. Of course there were alot of police and a few soldiers around, but still, try to imagine walking down a narrow street, turning a corner and you are next to the White House. We had a good time strolling Casco Viejo before returning to downtown for drinks and dinner.

We drank at a supposedly Irish pub, but there was nothing Irish about the place. It was an American Sports bar, with huge plasma screens showing basketball and bull riding. The view was nice, as it was several floors up. After that we went to...the Hard Rock Cafe, Panama. Yeah, so other than the waitress not speaking English it was like any other Hard Rock Cafe I have been to. They had a 2 for 1 deal going with Hurricanes, so we were really drunk by the time we left. I don't really remember much after that, but somehow we made it back to the hostel without getting robbed, so things turned out all right.

Well, internet is alot cheaper here than anywhere else I have been in Central America, but it is still not free. I will post again soon, as there are some significant events that have befallen Project:Wanderer the last two days. But for now, that fills in the middle of the week. Until the next post - Pura Vida.


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