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No Worries 'Mas o Menos' 2 years on the road, travelling South East Asia, China, South & Central America and who knows where after that... Photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dojo77/collections/

Smile...you're in Panama

PANAMA | Wednesday, 20 October 2010 | Views [4827] | Comments [5]

We had to get up at 5.30am to leave Capurgana but even at this early hour our new Colombian friends came to wave us goodbye, along with the hostel owner who wanted to wish us a buen viaje. It wasn’t difficult to find which boat we were catching as the Captain was waiting by his lancha at the dock waving hello and showing us onto his boat, which we only had to share we one other passenger.

Puerto Obaldia

The hour long journey we were expecting over choppy seas only took 20 minutes over some very calm water, so we arrived with plenty of time to catch our flight. Puerto Obaldia is another Darien town than is only accessible by sea or air, so to make it all the way into Panama we would have to cheat a little.

Our welcome into Panama was not quite as warm as the welcome we had received at La Miel a few days before. First there was the cleaning of our flip flops and feet at quarantine, which was just a very large sponge we had to walk over in a bamboo hut. Then we had our whole backpacks searched in minute detail. If only the officer had known how smelly our clothes were he might not have been so thorough! Once we were given the nod, we walked down the road to immigration where we had to wait until 8am to enter. After waiting for the first person in the queue to finish the process, the immigration officer then told us we had to get copies of our passport for him, why couldn’t he have told us half an hour earlier? He had to fill in forms for both of us by hand, asking lots of questions and checking we had enough money for our stay in Panama, making us show him our cash and credit cards to prove it. Then he gave us the entry stamp. I’m not surprised that is was such a strict process, the border is located in a notoriously dangerous area where it’s common to smuggle drugs, so they have to be careful who they let in.

Next we wandered down the road looking for the Air Panama office, which had no signs at all and we only knew it existed when someone shouted at us to turn around and go into an abandoned looking building on the corner. It’s not possible to book this flight in advance, you just have to hope they have spare seats when you arrive. We were so glad when our names were added to the passenger list otherwise we would have had to wait 4 days for the next flight in perhaps the worst town we have seen for a very long time, there would have been absolutely nothing for us to do.

After all our bags were weighed the baggage guy started leading us towards the scales because he had to weigh us both as well to see how much fuel they would need for the plane! Then we walked up the only path in town towards what we thought was the airport. When we got to the end there was just a runway and a construction site. It turned out the airport was still being built so the departures lounge was adorned with planks of wood with nails sticking out of them for us to sit on and for departures information you just had to watch the sky and wait to see the plane coming in to land.

We could hardly stop laughing when our luggage was laid out on the runway for the drug sniffer dog to check. He had no interest at all in the baggage and was only good at nipping the ankles of his guard. The overseeing commanding officer just shook his head in dismay and gave up after three unsuccessful attempts to get some obedience from the young pup.

Finally our plane arrived and for the first time at an ‘airport’ we had to put our own luggage on the plane, boarded without having to be called to the gate, there was no gate after all, and got to choose our own seats.


The plane ride was very scenic and we flew very low over the coast and through the San Blas islands, even stopping to pick up a couple of extra passengers at another tiny airport. We then flew over the mainland of Panama, which is so narrow we could just about make out both coast lines at the same time. When we arrived in Panama City we flew over the entrance to the Panama Canal and could view all the containers waiting to be loaded onto ships.

Throughout the entire process in Puerto Obaldia we did not get a single smile or ‘your welcome’, even the pilot ignored our Gracias when we landed!

Panama City

After leaving the plane the domestic airport experience turned into a complete shambles. We landed at 11am and departed the airport at 1.30pm, with the whole process taking over double the amount of time the flight took. Why? To be fair, first up we had to pay for our plane tickets as there was no payment method process in Puerto Obaldia, but then the endless bureaucracy began. We had to fill in customs forms again and have our luggage searched a second time even though we had already done this at the border. Then we had to collect our baggage, have it weighed again, and pay for excess baggage. We had to pay for an extra 12 kilos but luckily for us the price was only 50 cents per kilo over the limit. Then we were called into an office one by one just to tell a guy our profession while he filled in another form. Just as we think are going to get our passports back, an officer leads us to an upstairs waiting room where we are left (6 foreigners) wondering what is happening. When someone finally comes out I was the first person to be called up, by this stage seriously fearing we were going to be body searched. It turns out we had to fill in another paper trail, where we had to be interviewed and answer all the same questions that we had been asked earlier that morning and yet again prove we had the funds for our stay in Panama. We never expected so much repetition, this was a domestic airport after all. Sitting in the office with a bunch of very serious police officers all listening to my conversation in stunted Spanish, felt like I was being interrogated in a cop show or on Prison Break. I really had to stop myself from giggling just at the absurdity of it all.

Finally after giving them my finger prints I was released and allowed to go back to the waiting room to warn the others about the paper trail ordeal they were about to experience. An hour later everyone was finished and we were all waiting to be released when we found out we had to wait another 30 minutes to get our passports back because they had been sent over to the Tucuman International Airport, 30km away, to be checked by Interpol because they don’t have access to a computer system at the local airport! By the way, to enter the immigration area the staff have to scan their fingerprints, so they do have some high tech equipment, just not the sort you would expect to find in an airport for processing passengers! What a joke and to top it all off, in our whole time in the airport, we didn’t see a single person smile. This doesn’t mean people are not polite, we received a fare few ‘buenos dias’ but none were accompanied by any facial warmth or meaning at all.

We were very relieved to arrive at our hostel, Mamallena’s, which was a welcome relief when it only took 2 minutes to register and get us to our room. We were both hungry so we set off down the main avenue to see what we could find. It was a pretty dire result. The avenue was full of run down fast food joints lined up one after the other, rubbish everywhere and homeless people talking to themselves on every corner. If this is as good as it gets for capital cities in Central America, I think we will happily be skipping the rest on our way north.

We didn’t want to write Panama off so soon, so decided to try and discover more about the people and their customs. The first thing Panamanian we decided to experience was the beer, what a surprise, which we discovered was very cheap but strangely named. Any beer with the word ‘Sober’ in the title has to be a contradiction.

Panama has a large Chinese population and there’s even a Chinatown in the capital, so we headed to a Chinese restaurant for the night. It was a very lively place and everyone was drinking beer with ice and watching baseball on the tv and being very vocal whenever they disagreed with a call. Baseball is Panama’s first sport after it was introduced by the Americans when they took control of the canal zone in 1903. When the jukebox sprang to life so did a number of diners who danced and sang along to ‘Macho macho man’, it was like eating your dinner in a disco!

The next day we strolled over to the Casco Antiguo (old town) passing men playing dominoes on the street. These actually turned out to be nice guys who recognised us over the next couple of days and one of them even gave us a smile, we nearly fainted!

We also caught up with a Sunday morning parade where the traditional Panamanian costume, the Pollera, and the real Panama Hat were on display.

The old town was a mix of restored buildings and ones looking like they are about to fall down while they wait for restoration. It wasn’t too impressive but it did give us a good view of the city skyline. It looks quite grand from a distance, maybe a bit like Hong Kong, but when you get closer it’s not so glitzy, it’s quite run down and just full of banks and casinos.

We could also view all the container ships on the horizon, lining up to make their way through the Panama Canal.

Panama City is definitely not Paradise City, the grass isn't green and the girls aren’t really very pretty, but the name did get the Guns n Roses song stuck in my head for four days.

The Panama Canal

How could we forget the Panama Canal. We couldn’t, not when I had been looking forward to seeing it for a long time, I'm a bit of a big boat spotter. It’s Panama’s most famous attraction and a huge feat of engineering, but maybe I will spare you the historical details. When we arrived at the visitor centre at Miraflores Locks I was a bit disappointed to see I had just missed a big Ro-Ro going through but luckily I had lots of Lo-Lo’s to entertain me (Lisa, I know you understand me!)

I found it quite pleasing watching the bulkers rise up and pass through the locks, watching the water levels rise and fall and the gates open and close. However, Ryan decided, that for him, this process was on the same entertainment scale as watching paint dry.


After one of us enjoyed the presentation video and museum, the rain came down and completely soaked us on our walk back to the bus stop. It rains 9 months of the year in Panama with the most rain being thrown down in October, which is not so great for us and it possibly explains why no one ever smiles here.


We then had even more fun when it took us 2 hours to get back to our hostel, which was only 10 km away. We hopped on a bus we thought was heading down the main avenue only to realise it was heading in the wrong direction and out through the suburbs. We kept thinking the bus would turn around soon and head back to town, but it just kept getting further away. We didn’t want to get off in case we got stuck somewhere random with the only option to get an expensive taxi back, so we stayed on the bus right until the end. The driver thought it was hilarious we were still sat there, the last ones on the bus, but he spoke good English, drove us to a bus stop so we could easily get back into town and started giving us lots of travel advice for Panama. It may not have been a very exciting ride, but we did get to see some more of the city and all for just 25 cents!


We arrived in Boquete after 6 hours on a bus and then an hour on a local bus that Ryan was excited to see was a traditional yellow school bus from the states, he’s always wanted to have a ride in one of them!

On the journey I discovered there was something I liked about Panama after all, which was seeing the different indigenous cultures who have autonomous zones throughout the country. The women all wear very different clothes from each other. The Kuna ladies dress in colourful hand sewn tops and skirts and wear strings of beads wrapped around their arms and legs along with a headscarf and a gold ring through their nose. The Ngobe Bugle women dress in long, single colour dresses with frills along the shoulders and hems, which reminded me of outfits from The Mysterious Cities of Gold.

We were met at the bus stop by Pancho who owned a hostel across the street. I think this guy had been storing up all his energy for a year because he exploded into a conversation in Spanglish and 30 minutes later, after drawing us an incomprehensible map of the area, we were sat in a room of his hostel wondering what on earth had just happened because a) it was completely unexpected for someone in Panama to act like that and b) we had just paid for a room that was dark, dank and smelled of mould. (Len I think you know this guy!)

After a walk in the rain around the sleepy retirement town of Boquete, we decided the weather was probably going to ruin any chances we had of seeing the nearby volcano and attempting the local treks would be pretty miserable. The next morning, after taking advantage of the hot showers (we hadn’t had hot water since Bogota), we got out of there, managing to avoid Pancho and hopped on a bus straight to David.


We didn’t need to stop in David for the night as we had plenty of time to travel further north, but we just couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to stay at the Purple House Hostel. We had heard about this place from our friend Len and just had to see for ourselves this hostel saturated by purple belongings from top to bottom. The walls, kitchen, cups and plates, all the signs, beds, telephones, just everything is purple. We were actually the only people staying there so we got to have long chats with the lady who runs the place, a New Yorker who has lived in Panama for 10 years, and once you get past the matronly rules and regulations, she was actually very friendly towards us and helped us to plan our travels in Central America, plus she had a soppy dog that helped to win us over too.

There is absolutely nothing to do in David, apart from explore the supermarket filled with American brands. It’s just a convenient town to catch onward transport and to realise we really should cut our losses short and head straight on to Costa Rica rather than wasting any more time in this land of rain and frowns.

I think when the USA left Panama to it’s own devices in 2000 they took the ‘Have a nice day’ with them or maybe we were we just too used to the cordial hospitality we had experienced in Colombia, with continuous ‘con mucho gustos’ and ‘a la ordens’. It was going to be a hard act to follow. In the shops all the cashiers would completely ignore any salutations you gave them. People do offer you seats on buses and give you helpful directions, so they are kind, they just never smile or acknowledge your thanks to them. I know we haven’t really given Panama a chance to show us what it does have to offer, but I think our time would be much better spent in countries we are looking forward to visiting.

The funniest thing that did happen in our week in Panama was Ryan deciding to ‘borrow’ someone elses shampoo that had been left in the shared bathrooms at our hostel. The next morning, to his horror, he saw the hostel owner in the same shower room washing his dog from the same bottle. Ryan had washed his hair with dog shampoo and he had a nice glistening coat to him for days afterward!


Favourite Place - La Miel (Both)
Favourite Attraction - Panama Canal (Jo) Nothing (Ryan)
Favourite Food - Subway (Both)
Favourite Beer - Atlas (Ryan)


Please refer to the blog above

For those of you thinking of possibly travelling to the region: Costs in USD

Accommodation - $17-30 for a private room in hostel
Restaurant meal - $3-5
350ml Bottled Beer - $0.70
500ml Soft Drink - $0.70
1.5l Bottle of water - $0.80
Bus - $1.5 / hour

Jo y Ryan

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dojo77/


Tags: boquete, david, panama canal, panama city, puerto obaldia




ha ha ha. Yes, I did meet that guy in Boquete. He drew us a totally indecipherable map too. His rooms felt more like prison cells than hotel rooms.

Glad to hear you had a good time with the purple lady. I guess you didn't tell her you were my friend. She would have tossed you out on the street.

  Len Nov 9, 2010 11:13 PM


Len, we didn't dare tell her we knew you for fear it would turn her into a crazy lady!

  ryanandjo Nov 18, 2010 4:37 AM


Being an American, mid 20s female who has lived in Panama City for the past 2 years, I think you need to come back and do a proper tour. Based on what I read in your posting, it doesn't seem you had any information about what to do, things to see in the city. Honestly, it's a great little city with tons of really distinct and fun places to see, restaurants, bars, some theatres, historical sites.... it feels to me that you missed A LOT.

I hope you give it another chance.

  NB Nov 30, 2010 4:27 AM


NB, we had plenty of information on what to do in the city and did see more than I wrote about, we just didn't like what there was and compared to what we have seen in other cities on our travels, Panama City really lacks quality attractions. I'm glad you like it there though, it's just not for us and we wont be back.

  ryanandjo Dec 10, 2010 4:34 PM


Thanks for the plug and the nice comments (except for the use of the word "matronly") ugh. Pay no attention to Len's comment. (I don't remember him, sorry...) It was a pleasure having you here, sorry you hit a slow night. All the best with your travels!

  Andrea Apr 1, 2011 11:22 AM

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