Goodbye Panama!!

Panama CityThree weeks.  Three God forsaken weeks I spent in that most despicable and wretched Panama City.  Although the plan had been to arrive, enjoy the flashy and cosmopolitan lifestyle of the urban metropolis, and then shortly thereafter hitch a ride on an economy class boat to Colombia, I soon discovered that my expectations were highly misplaced and that a different set of plans were in store for me.  However, karma was not without its reward and, after patiently enduring the drudgery of Panama City and genuinely pouring my heart and soul into the search for South American passage, I found myself embarking on a wondrous Caribbean dream.

Well, it appears that I had fallen for the Latin American illusion – that a string of pearly high-rises make a cosmopolitan city.  However, it was a rude awakening when upon arriving in Panama City I discovered that in fact the place was more of a big disorganized slum than a vibrant social mecca.  I had been warned by some few travelers that I should not get my hopes up, but the truth was even more depressing than I could have imagined.

Charm was a concept that was apparently unheard of in this part of the world, the city rife with characterless architectural nightmares from the latter 20th century.  Streets were barren concrete corridors, devoid of trees or aesthetic redemption, but in their place thick, greasy hordes of traffic oozed through the arteries of the city.  The hazy yellow-brown sky lapped up the foul black plumes of smoke that poured forth from the red devils (city buses) that fought repulsively for dominance in congested avenues.  And the string of pearly high rises turned out to be nothing more than a sad cluster of opulent cul-de-sac’ed American style suburbs for the avaricious latino bourgeois, masquerading as stylish downtown models from afar.

Casco ViejoI have to say that I wasn’t very impressed with the city from the beginning, as I rode my bicycle along the outskirts, trying doggedly to figure out just where I was going and how I would ever get to Hoswuals’ apartment.  However, when you’re attempting to navigate a bicycle through a large, congested city for the first time, you never really know just what broke-down part of town you might be in and so I always try to avoid hasty first impressions.

But once I had finally found my way to Hoswuals, settled into the apartment, and he began showing me around the city, I quickly went from enthusiastically optimistic to wretchedly disillusioned.  I suppose that this would have been a good time for me to have learned the lesson that large Latin American cities are almost always an absolute disgrace, but I suppose that after Mexico City I always harbored some glimmer of hope.

However, during my desperate attempt to fairly evaluate the city and experience all that it had to offer, I did manage to see a few pleasant aspects along the way.  One day was spent visiting Panama Viejo, the derelict stone remains of the original city that had been burnt to the ground by pirate Sir Henry Morgan in 1671, which was interesting, but nothing to write home about (although I guess that’s kinda what I’m doing right now, eh?).  I also spent several afternoons riding down to Casco Viejo, the old colonial part of Panama City which, after the sacking of the original city,  was constructed further up the coast on a small peninsula surrounded by reefs to protect it from further siege.  Although it was a tiny portion of the city, this was by far the most pleasant – it was only a shame that it was completely cut off from the rest of the city by dangerous urban slums.

The Panama CanalThen of course, there was the Canal, truly an engineering marvel.  Although I hadn’t been quite so enthused about seeing it before arriving in Panama City, when I finally went out to take a look with my new Colombian friend Carlos (from Medellin!), I found it to be quite impressive.  To watch thousands and thousands of gallons of water rapidly filling and draining narrow channels stuffed completely to the rim with massive cargo ships was most definitely something that you don’t see every day – and which explains all of the publicity surrounding the canal.  Apparently, they were also set to begin the widening of the canal to double its current size within the following months, and had already begun clearing away the jungle along its sides.

In actuality, although I was in Panama City for nearly three weeks looking for a boat, Hoswuals and I didn’t particularly spend much time together, as he had an extremely full work schedule.  And so, thats how I ended up spending those following three weeks in frustrated solitude.  I spent almost all day every day heading down to the Amador Causeway and the Balboa Yacht club posting flyers of my desire to act as a deckhand and searching for boat captains that were heading to Cartagena, Colombia, but after endless days on end of searching, I kept coming up without any leads.  As time wore on I began to grow more and more unhappy trapped in one of my least favorite cities, and looked to other options.

That was when I began making the journeys to the Caribbean coast.  It was about a two hour bus ride from Panama City to Colon, the city at the other end of the canal, and Colon was said to be one of the most dangerous cities in all of the Americas.  I’m not sure whether or not I could testify to this fact or not, as I decided to always err on the side of caution when I visited Colon and take taxis (which, thankfully, were dirt cheap) while avoiding bad parts of town, but it certainly did have the look of an edgy place – and you never saw anyone that even remotely resembled caucasian on the streets.

Colon HarborHowever, even after two day trips to the yacht clubs in Colon and much shmoozing on my part, things were still not looking good.  I even made a trip out to Portobello, another tiny port a few hours furth down the Caribbean coast from Colon which was rumored to occasionally have some outbound boats to Colombia, but again no dice.

Finally, after all of my failed attempts, I still remained trapped in Panama City.  After all of my struggles and investigation, the only thing that I had really learned was that I was apparently searching for a ride to Colombia during the wrong season, but if I wanted to stick around a few more months until the holiday season began, then I would certainly find something, as that is when the winds push Southeast and captains head to Cartagena for Christmas.  Absolutely not, I would rather brave the Darien Gap (the thin land-bridge between Panama and Colombia which is filled with smugglers, bandits, and impassible jungle) than stay in Panama City any longer.

That’s when I finally broke down and decided to kill my budget.  It was over three hundred dollars to buy a spot on one of the passenger sailboats to Colombia (or as I like to call them, the luxury backpacker cruises), but at this point if I wanted to continue my journey, there was no other choice.  I headed down to Luna’s Castle, the popular hostel in Casco Viejo, and asked them to make my reservation.

Three days later I was up at four in the morning, loading my panniers onto my bicycle in the darkened streets of northern Panama City, and bidding adieu to a very sleepy, but gracious, Hoswuals.  I rode the almost half an hour ride down towards Casco Viejo in sheer exhuberance, delighted to be finally leaving that last armpit of Central America, and dreaming longingly of not only finally arriving in South America, but also of the delicious Caribbean voyage which awaited me.  As I pulled up outside of the towering building of Luna’s Castle in the pale pre-dawn light and morning drizzle, the four by four vehicle to San Blas awaited me – and I knew that Panama City was imminently to become not only a part of world history, but a part of my own past history, and that it was time to say goodbye to North America.


2 Responses to “Goodbye Panama!!”

  1. 1 oldsalt1942
    March 27, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    To each his own, but all things considered, glad to see you’re gone.

  2. September 10, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Thanks for finally writing about >Goodbye Panama!! | In Another Life <Liked it!

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