DESTINATIONS

Panama: more than a canal

Panama has more than just hats, people. For one blissful month after finishing grad school and before the student-loan repayment plan kicked in, I was able to join my family in this cool Central American country. Here are ten interesting Panama facts.

Locks

Panama was put on the map when the powers that be decided it took way too long to ship stuff all the way around South America and a shortcut through Panama would be just the ticket for cutting that trip in half. In 1914, after a long and fraught filled venture, the canal opened for business. When we visited the Miraflores lock, I had to take a good hard look at a map to figure out what this canal business really meant.

Essentially, the canal is a 48 mile waterway across Panama. To build it, engineers had to dig a big ditch and create a big lake (probably because building a big ditch is really hard) and put some locks along the way. A lock is a section of water that gets separated from the rest of the water by giant walls. They can then fill this section up with more water and decrease it, allowing a ship to slowly makes its way across the canal.

To see the locks in person and be able to get a sense of the scale because the container ships have stacks and stacks of what I know to be the thing a semi truck pulls around–well it is pretty impressive. 

Miraflores locks is on the interesting Panama facts list
No water on the left, lots of water on the right.

Movies

We stayed in a high-rise apartment in downtown Panama City that just happened to be located right next to a mall that had a movie theater. The theaters in Panama had two options for watching movies: regular, which cost about $2, or V.I.P. which cost about $4. I can’t usually afford the V.I.P. section of anything. But let me tell you friend, it was worth it down here. The $2 shows were pretty entertaining–they were filled with mainly Panamians who didn’t subscribe to the ‘thou shalt not talk in movies’ commandment. Heck no! Everybody talked (to the movie, to their friends, to the person on the other end of the phone). In the V.I.P. section, you got yourself a leather recliner chair that was as comfy as a lazy boy.

Bonus: you could order a brownie sundae and get it delivered right to you. I know some American theaters have started doing these things in the last few years. But in 2008, this was a definite novelty for me. I watched just about every movie I could that month.

Brochettas

Like any good malls worth their salt, the Panama malls had food courts. In these food courts were a few restaurants that hawked tasty little delicacies called ‘brochettas.’ Brochettas are basically shish kabobs. Only, they were not just any shish kabob. They were super tasty with tender marinated chicken and steak between fresh peppers and onions. Throw some fried plantains and rice next to these and you have a delicious, inexpensive meal–all for just a few dollars. Confession: we ate a mall food court just about every day. 

Fruit

Like all tropical countries, Panama is blessed with fresh, delicious fruits. Fruit can go with everything and I can eat it or drink it with every meal. My absolute favorite combination is a smoothie made only of sandia (watermelon) and pina (pineapple) and some ice. I don’t know why these two make magic when combined. But if you find yourself somewhere tropical, I highly recommend it. Just make sure they used bottled water. Interesting Panama fact: you can buy fruit from vendors while stopped at traffic lights in Panama City. 

Monkeys

I’ve had a few monkey encounters in countries around the world, but none were as impressive as what we experienced in Panama. One day, my family and I were on a nice little hike just outside the city. The trail was well defined and covered by a tree canopy so it wasn’t terribly hot. As we strolled along, all of a sudden we were stopped in our tracks by a cacophony of screaming, howling monkeys. We hadn’t seen any of these monkeys previously, but after all of the noise we looked up and saw at least 20 spider monkeys flying through the trees, Tarzan style, making very good time. We stood there with our jaws open until–BOOM–a crazy loud thunderclap sounded overhead. Ten seconds after that, the sky opened up and we were caught in a torrential downpour. The monkeys knew, man.   

Impromptu thunderstorm soaks adults and babies
Minor fleshwound after running from monkeys and the rain

Cosmopolitan/International

Interesting Panama fact: due to a very favorable tax system, businessmen and women from around the world call Panama home. Panama City is a fascinating contradiction of Latin culture and fancy cars and suits. You can hear all sorts of languages walking down the streets of the city.

Panama City Skyline at Sunset
Big City Nights

Domesticas

Domesticas in Panama do a little of everything; they cook meals, clean houses and watch your kids. My sister had a domestica and she was just great. I know this sounds elitest and all colonialist, but it was seriously handy to have this lady around. I imagine this is how the rich and famous live. But in Panama, it was ridiculously inexpensive to have a domestica. And on the other side, domesticas make very good livings, comparatively.

Indigenous peeps

One of the coolest things in Panama is the diverse indigenous groups. There are almost 300,000 indigenous people in Panama in a handful of different groups. But the three that I had the most contact with were the Embera, Guaymi or Ngabe, and the Kuna.

While in Panama City, we took an excursion to an Embera village; it was pretty touristy but still a cool thing to do. We piled into a dugout canoe and plowed up a river to an Embera village where the women wore shirts made of quarters and metal coils. They made us meals of fish that had been wrapped in plantain leaves and a little boy climbed up a tree like Mowgli. It was nuts.

One of the most identifiable artifacts from Panama is created by the Kuna tribe. They make really beautiful clothes and artwork called molas by sewing pieces of fabric together in all different colors. Layers of color are exposed to create pictures and designs.

In the Chiriqui province, we were exposed to some of the political issues in Panama when we saw a few protests by the Ngabe people; one afternoon the highway was completely shut down as because protesters had set up a blockade. It was non-violent and a good reminder that as a (comparatively) wealthy tourist, I have it very, very good.

Small child in a tree
Mowgli!

Boquete

My sister lived in the Chiriqui province in an adorable town called Boquete. Boquete is up in the highlands where you can see mountains and get to experience the lush vegetation without the debilitating heat of Panama City. Don’t get me wrong, it was still plenty hot. Just not quite as knock-your-socks off hot. Boquete is a haven for international retirees–I guess once all the business people make their money in the city they move here to retire.

Street sign for Boquete, Panama
Boquete–very green and can be reach by going around a volcano either way

Fireworks

Port city of Colon has an international free-trade zone where visitors like us could go and buy stuff at rock-bottom prices. These goods and wares are cheaper here because a lot of them are made in other countries and are shipped to their final destination via the Panama Canal. If the products stop their journey in Panama, they are significantly less expensive. Such is the case with fireworks coming out of Asia.

At home, people buy illegal fireworks and shoot off one or two to much acclaim. In Panama, you can get fireworks cheap and so many events (birthdays, weddings, etc.) have very impressive firework shows to celebrate. Interesting Panama fact: it is not uncommon to see roaring firework displays a few times a week.

Firework dispay
Why wait until the 4th of July?

Conclusion

Panama is a diverse country that pretty much has it all: history, culture, city life and good food. It is hands down my favorite Central American country. Whether you are there for only a few days or are hiding from the real world like I was, I would highly recommend a stop in this country.

Panamanian Beach
Oh yeah, the beaches were amazing too
Beautiful Panama sunsets
Beautiful Panama sunsets

2 Comments

  • Gretchita

    That’s so cool you got to see the locks in person! When we bought our car overseas, it made its way through the Panama Canal. The ship had a webcam on it, so we got to stalk it all around its trip. When it got to the locks, it looked like it was going to get stuck- but evidently they have it down and take care of business. It’d be totally cool to see it in action, in person. Also, my bro loves Panama, too. He’s traveled to South America a few times and said its his numerõ uno. 🙂 Great post!

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