When I first found out my flight home from Brazil would have an 8-hour layover in Panama, I was stoked. Add a country to my visited list, no charge! I tried to research it a bit so I’d be sure to get the most out of my short visit, but found that with such a brief stay the best bet would be to arrange a tour directly from the airport. So I showed up with literally no idea of what to expect.
I landed and walked up to immigration, telling the officer that I wanted to spend just the day outside the airport. He told me to purchase a $5 tourist card. Cool…they even accept USD!
I headed downstairs and quickly located a man holding up a “Tours of Panama City” sign. $25, and it’s sure to get me back in time for my flight. Cool…they even accept USD!
But since I’ve got two hours to kill until the tour departs at 11am, I headed upstairs to charge my phone, send off some e-mails, and withdraw a bit of local cash from an ATM. It spit out a US $20 bill. Wait a minute, what’s going on here?
At 11:30am we hopped in the bus and drove for about fifteen minutes into town. The airport’s immediate surroundings felt a lot like Cuba – from what I’ve seen in movies at least – a feeling that quickly faded as we made our way into the heart of Panama City, which felt pretty much identical to the West coast of the United States.
Then they dropped me off at a shopping mall that might as well have been a clone of Santa Monica Place and told me to meet back here at 1:30.
“Wait a minute, I have to kill TWO HOURS in a shopping mall? I just sat in the airport for two hours, I want to see Panama!”
“Well, the Panama City tour includes shopping.”
“…But this is EXACTLY the same as any mall back home! And two hours? Who goes to another country and shops for two hours?”
“Sorry sir, we can’t change the itinerary.”
I go upstairs for a bite to eat. Should I choose Mc Donald’s, Quizno’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, or Burger King? I choose to order a Whopper. I pay with my US $20 bill.
Am I really in a foreign country? Am I missing something here? Did I somehow end up in a Twilight Zone United States where I’m really home yet somehow everything is written in Spanish? All of a sudden I no longer feel like a gringo; everyone looks just like me. People aren’t walking around in ripped shorts and flipflops, but designer shirts and loafers. Outside there are no pools of liquid grime, no loiterers staring suspiciously over their pile of empty beer cans. No military police patrolling with their guns, batons, and flak jackets. It feels safe. But at the same time disappointing. Its exactly as if I were right back at home. Back in the first world. Like I’m not traveling anymore at all.
I decide to explore a bit. In the local supermarket I find shelves stacked with Bumblebee Tuna and Smuckers Jam and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. No more uncovered piles of meat with flies buzzing about, no more strange, spiky fruits the size of my head.
(PS I LOVE my phone – I’m actually writing this blog as I walk around the supermarket)
Eventually I give up, taking a seat on a bench in front of a Fred Segal and behind Armani Exchange, waiting patiently for the tour group to return. Shopping is just about my least favorite activity on Earth – it truly boggles my mind how anyone would want to come to a foreign country to shop. But it’s pretty much what I’ve grown to expect on organized tours. I’ve been on just a few in my life, and sometimes they’re cool – like the Rio favela tour – but those are definitely the exception and not the rule.
Finally the bus came back and picked us up. The guide barely spoke a word of English. So after sitting in an American shopping mall, I essentially spent the next couple hours in city traffic looking at buildings while he yakked away about who knows what.
I love tours.
During the first chunk of the drive, pretty much the only thing that felt different were the buses, which looked like converted old school buses with crazy paint jobs. I soon found out that that’s exactly what they were.
After awhile we entered the “Old City,” and for the first time since leaving the airport it started to feel like I was in fact outside the United States once again. We stopped to see a church, roamed around a bit, and continued on our way…
…To some souvenir shops for more shopping.
Finally it was time to see the Minaflores shiplocks, the main sight in Panama City. We hopped out and paid our entrance fee – not included in the price of the day’s wonderful tour (which we weren’t told when we signed up) – and milled about the museum for two and a half hours.
The shiplocks themselves were pretty cool, especially considering how long ago they were built. But from a magnificence standpoint they just can’t compare to the Yangtze Dam in China. Check out that post for a full description and photos of the world’s biggest shiplocks.
Then they drove us back to the airport.
Worst tour ever.
I might have at least enjoyed the driving portion if it were in English, or if they’d told me it would be in Spanish so I could find another tour operator. But I guess you win some, you lose some.
And that, my friends, at last concludes the tale of my trip through Brazil (and Panama).
(Note: This entry was originally posted on Mar 15, and was part of the previous; I later split them and changed the date to fit the chronology of events.)