Thursday, January 17, 2013

Panama: Getting Here and First Impressions

Sunset from Casco Viejo, Panama City
      Once we got Erik's contract job settled for the end of February, we realized we only had about six weeks before we had to be back in the Northwest. With that bit of info, I set to work trying to find us some inexpensive tickets somewhere warm. Months ago, we'd tossed around the idea of wanting to visit Panama, a country about which I knew next to nothing. (There's a canal here, right? I do remember the palindrome A man, a plan, a canal - Panama, from elementary school. And, I think that's about all I could tell you.) I spent whatever spare moments I had for the next few days scouring my favorite flight search engines, and I like skyscanner because you can type in your departure city, leave a large range of dates, and put in "everywhere" as your destination and it will show you the cheapest flights on the best days. has a similar fare calendar that is really useful for finding the best fares if your dates are flexible. 

    Initially flights to Panama from Portland looked way too expensive. Then I remembered that both Erik and I had signed up for (and later cancelled) Southwest credit cards and had some points that could be used for free flights. Getting creative, I played around on and realized that, using points, we could fly from Portland to Fort Lauderdale for just $5 each! And from Fort Lauderdale, I found one way tickets to Panama for just over $100! Then, I had American Airlines miles, also from a credit card promotion, that we could use to get back to Portland. In the end, with taxes and fees, we payed under $1200 for the six of us to fly round trip. I share all of that to encourage those of you who think that family travel has to be exorbitant. I usually spend hours and hours looking for the best flights and thinking outside the box when it comes to accommodation. We've also taken advantage of a few good credit card promotions over the last few years, so we have points and miles that can further stretch our travel dollar. Once in a place, we live simply, eat plenty of meals "in", and don't try to see or do all the big (expensive) tourist attractions. 

    Once we booked the tickets we had just over a week to prepare for this next phase. There were last minute things to buy, packing to be done, and books to be procured. (Yes, we travel with ten pounds of books. We homeschool! We're currently learning about rainforest animal and plant life, the Panama Canal, and we also brought along several great books on coral reefs and ocean life.) The day of departure approached rapidly...

The kids ate some yogurt right before we went through security. 

   As our flight was leaving Portland at 6 in the morning, we spent the night at an airport hotel. When Peregrine walked into the lobby with Erik, he came back and reported that, "This hotel is so swanky, it even has a ballroom!" I didn't see a ballroom, nor did I find it "swanky", but it was a convenient place to stay. Unfortunately neither Erik nor I slept well at all that night, which meant that our 3:45AM wake-up was far from welcome! The kids were up and ready to go, groggily accompanying Erik to the lobby for coffee and orange juice. We took the shuttle over to the airport and it was freezing outside, making us look forward to our arrival "somewhere warm"!  
The kids playing in Fort Lauderdale. The next best thing to an airport play area? 
    Our first flight was to Phoenix, where we had about 1 1/2 hours before we boarded the next flight to Florida. That leg was 3 1/2 hours, and we arrived there around 5 EST. I'm always amazed at how well the kids do traveling! Every one of them loves to fly and in spite of the long day there was very little complaining. We had a six hour wait in Fort Lauderdale and that got a bit long. I'd planned to get dinner there, but in our terminal there were really no options that were appealing. Erik and I got a salad and I kept handing out lots of snacks to the kids. We managed to travel with only one checked bag and a whole pile of carry-ons! 

By the end of our time in Fort Lauderdale, we were all very tired and ready to be on our way.
     Finally, at close to 11PM, we boarded our final flight that would take us to Panama. It was only three hours, and the kids all were asleep before very long. I played 20 questions with Poppy for a while, and then I had her head on my lap on one side and Pearl snuggled up on the other. I dozed off for a while. We arrived in Panama City at 2:30 in the morning and everyone clapped as the plane touched down. Thankfully we got our bag and were passed quickly through immigration and customs. We got a taxi into the city, where I'd booked a hotel for our first two nights.

    It was about 4AM when we arrived, exhausted and ready to sleep. I'd used points to book a nicer room than I would have paid for, one with a separate bedroom, kitchenette, and breakfast the next morning. Erik went in to register while the Very Tired Mama waited in the taxi with the Very Tired Children. He came out a few moments later to tell me that they had no record of our reservation. Was I sure this was the right place? Yes, this was the place. Okay then, they could put us in a room. Of course the suite wasn't available, and there wasn't a pool, and they didn't serve breakfast, but hey, at least we'd have a place to sleep! (Which at that point was the main thing.) It was five in the morning, although only two according to our body clock, before we were all settled in and asleep. Knowing that the sun rises bright and early in the tropics, I was afraid the kids would be up a couple hours later, so I was pleasantly surprised to wake at noon and see the all sleeping there in broad daylight! 

    There was a nice little kitchenette in the room, which I was very thankful for. Erik was happy that he could make some coffee, but alas, there was no pot in which to boil water. (When Erik mentioned this to the front desk people, we later returned to our room to find they'd brought a crock pot! Later on they also brought a small set of pots and pans.) I doled out snacks to the kids, and at about 2 we finally made it out to look for a place to eat. I'd booked two nights at this hotel, and hoped that we could find a more reasonable place to stay beyond that. However, since the wifi wasnt working, I felt pretty lost on figuring anything out! It turned out we were in the middle of the financial district of the city, full of high rise banks and offices, nice hotels, and not a hole-in-the-wall restaurant or street food cart to be seen. We walked for several blocks, hungry, disoriented, lost, tired, and hot. Did I mention it was hot? Like ninety degrees and humid kind of hot? Finally Erik asked a friendly young man, Mario,  where we might find a place to eat and he kindly walked several more blocks with us to a little restaurant where we collapsed. I tried sancocho, which is apparently the national dish of Panama, a chicken and vegetable stew. It was mild and delicious and I felt refreshed after eating. It turned out that, after all that walking, the place he led us to was only about a block down from our hotel! 

   After doing a bit of reading in my Lonely Planet guidebook, I decided that we should go scope out a different area of the city, Casco Viejo, which is the old city. We got a taxi and I nearly burst into tears when the driver told us we wouldn't want to stay there as it was bordered by "red" districts, not safe or good for families, and too touristy on top of that. Regardless, we had him drop us off there, heeding his warning to not venture beyond a certain area past dark. I think people must have a stereotypical idea of what an American family would want, because we liked Casco Viejo so much better than the area where we were staying! It feels "real", has history and charm, has families out spending time together, etc. We found and booked a room for the next several nights and planned to move over the next morning. I kept reminding myself that we'd only been in the country less than 24 hours and it was normal to feel pretty out of whack, but I was very relieved to know we had a better "home" to go to! 

   Note to self - Please remember that the first couple days anywhere are hard. Always. Give yourself and your family a lot of grace and don't expect too much. 
Poppy enjoying a pickled quail egg! These were a curious little snack I picked up at the grocery store and ended up being a hit with everyone. 
Looking out from our room in Casco Viejo. The distant skyline is part of the area where we stayed the first two nights. I prefer the patchwork tin roofs up close and the skyscrapers from far off! 
     We moved into our new room yesterday and then spent a good part of the afternoon resting. Late in the afternoon we ventured out and were happy to find an inexpensive little eatery selling typical Panamanian food. We then enjoyed a walk along the seawall in the warm, breezy night air. There was a young man with a boa constrictor, and a couple of iguanas and we all took turns holding the iguanas. It was "free for touch, $3 for photo", so I have no photos to prove it. I love iguanas, and was so proud of all the kids for holding one. Even little Pearl let one of the babies climb on her. It would have been worth $3 too capture the look on her face when she saw it crawling on her shirt! We feel like we're finding our groove, getting used to a new time zone, getting to know our surroundings, and beginning to enjoy being here.

     Panama seems like a pretty amazing place, and I love seeing such a diversity of people who call it home. There are native people groups and those of Spanish, African, East Indian, and Chinese descent, as well as many more. We've seen Jewish men in kippuhs,  and Arabic products in the grocery store. You can't tell from looking at a person if they're Panamanian or not, and I like that. We plan to stay in the city another week and explore the Canal zone and some other things nearby, then move out into another area. Mountains? Beach? We'll see. 

    Here are a few more pictures from our first evening in Casco Viejo:
Ships line up, awaiting their turn to enter the Panama Canal. Apparently, a ship can book passage for a specific day if they're in a hurry,  but it costs an extra ten per cent. Or, they can wait until their number is called and go when there is room for them. 
This is the kind of place I love, literally a little hole in the wall, where a friendly woman sells snacks and simple fare.
The kids anxiously await betidos, fresh fruit milkshakes. Do you like how they're peering into the hole in the wall? 
You can see The Bridge of the Americas in the distance. It spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.


  1. Have you been able to get into a semi-regular schedule? Are you getting enough sleep??

    I'm so glad your family got there safely with a minimum of fuss!

    I'm looking forward to learning about Panama with you as you post more pictures and facts of your travels!

    1. Semi-regular... what's that? Nope, not quite, but we're working on it.
      Glad to have you traveling along with us!


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