We’re spending two weeks in Panama City before we take Pineapple through the Panama Canal. It feels good to be here. After decades of city living (17 years for John and 35 for me), we still love the feel of a city. The urban energy. The bustle. Finding our way amdist the chaos.
Stepping onto the subway platform to head downtown, it hit us that the beautiful bays, coastal towns, and adventures with fellow cruisers are behind us until next season. We stood on the crowded train in the middle of rush hour, remembering our old life, and becoming more and more excited to return to the “real world” temporarily. Funny, even the train gave us a gentle transition back to urban living—in Panama City there is only one line, so it was easy to figure out after nine months away from mass transit!
If you’re not a sailor, you might be thinking that two weeks in Panama City is a bit much. And it’s true, Panama City does not have a ton to offer travelers. But it serves as a good example of the differences between vacationing and the long-term travel that we’re doing: for us, cities are not just for sightseeing; we actually have “life” stuff to do while we’re here.
We had to take the cats to the veterinarian for new health certificates before they can fly back to the USA. (And in true Central American bureaucratic style, we still have to visit a government office to get export permits for the cats. We don’t want to find ourselves traveling with any international feline outlaws.) We had to finalize plans for our four-month stay in the USA—we’ll be based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I’m from, with lots of travel plans already in the works.
And the boat projects never stop, of course. We’ve been to multiple hardware stores; we’ve been provisioning and cleaning; we’ve kept up on our routine maintenance; and there’s a whole set of preparations for our Panama Canal transit in a few days. (We’ll write more about that another time!)
But the sailing community in Panama City is bustling, so it has been hard to focus. A few days ago, all eleven of the Clipper Round the World Race boats arrived in Panama City, and they are docked right next to us at Flamenco Marina!
We’ve watched huge crews (50 people per boat!) coming and going, fixing, cleaning, and preparing for their own canal transit before racing non-stop to New York. A few crew members even stopped by to check out our boat (that’s right, Phil!) and ask about our cruising plans. We were much more interested in hearing about the race, of course, and to try out our new Clipper Race vocabulary with them: were they “leggers” (participating in one or several legs of the race) or “worlders” (racing every leg around the world)?
John also was lucky enough to transit the canal last week as a “line handler” on another sailboat, a nearly new Outremer 45 (yes, just like La Vagabonde!). The Australian owners were our marina neighbors before the Clipper fleet showed up, and they gave John a great opportunity to preview the canal transit before we do it ourselves.
It assuaged some of our worries about everything that can go wrong (ship traffic, turbulence in the locks, damaging the boat, running out of food for the crew; yes, we still like to worry!) and has helped us better prepare for our own transit.
In between all that, we’ve still found time to enjoy the city. Here’s what we’d recommend if your travels or sails bring you to Central America’s biggest city:
1. Old City (aka Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo): Not to be confused with the even older part of town, Panama Viejo, which was the original location of Panama City when it was settled by the Spanish. Eventually pirates plundered and burned the city, due to its location on the Spanish treasure route between South America and Europe. The Old City sprung up during the later part of the 1800s as the Panama Railroad and then Panama Canal were built.
After falling into disrepair, this tiny area is now experiencing major gentrification and development. The French were the first to attempt building the canal, and they also had a major role in building Panama City. Their influence is everywhere. Buildings are being restored with French architectural details. It’s like walking through Paris! Or at least New Orleans.
It’s the center of nightlife, restaurants, coffeeshops, and bars; really the hippest place to be. Several plazas, churches, and other buildings are still in tact, so it’s a great place to wander around looking for shopping or a bite to eat.
Around the city, however, is a different story. Immediately outside the restored buildings and re-cobbled streets is a seriously depressing slum. It is no place to walk around (even during the day) and I was a little anxious driving through in a taxi. The taxi drivers warned us not to walk here and they actually seemed a little on edge while we drove through the area. Central America doesn’t seem to have much of a middle class, and this was a stark reminder.
2. Museo del Canal Interoceánico (Panama Canal Museum): Located in the Old City, this was a good supplement to all our reading on the history of the canal. It covers the canal development through the present day, including the negotiations to transition the canal from the USA to Panama, and the expansion of the locks to accommodate even larger ships (up to 1200 feet long and 160 feet wide). Lots of artifacts brought the history to life, and it was the perfect tempo—about two hours to see everything.
3. We found a food tour! We are big fans of food tours as a way to eat your way through a city while learning something, so I was thrilled to find one here. Admittedly, since Panama City is not known for its culinary scene, the tour was not as amazing on the taste buds as others we’ve done. But we still had a great time! We learned about the budding coffee industry in Panama (perfect for us coffee-lovers), which is now growing some of the world’s most expensive beans.
This tiny bag sells for $35!
We enjoyed a few sips at a fancy coffee shop in the Old City as part of the tour. We also visited Panama City’s first microbrewery, ate some amazing ceviche at a “locals only” spot, and finished the tour drinking Panamanian rum (Abuelo seven-year, one of John’s favorites!) on a rooftop bar with great city views.
Jorge, our awesome guide, led the tour for us and two other couples from Canada and Australia. We had such a great time together that we all went out for tacos and more drinks after the tour ended! That was a first!
4. More food! We found plenty of great restaurants when we chose to eat ashore. The standout was Laboratorio Madrigal, where we had dinner for John’s birthday. It was the fanciest dinner we’ve had in ages and the price tag was so worth it! It’s a must-stop if you are looking for a classy restaurant with amazing food in Panama City. We also found delicious pizza at Caffe Per Due, almost-Mexico-quality tacos at Tacos la Neta, and Panamanian food at Restaurante Tinajas (where they also have an almost-nightly show of Panamanian song and dance). Closer to the causeway (where the marinas and anchorages are located), we had a fun night at La Fábrica, a gastropub and microbrewery, with our great cruising friends Wags and Paula aboard Gadabout.
5. Miraflores Locks Visitor Center: This museum and observation deck is the best way to see the Panama Canal up close and in person. It was on our to-do list before arriving in Panama City, but we realized that since we’re taking Pineapple through the canal, we’d get an even-closer view of the canal than the visitors center can offer, so we decided not to go. But we’ve heard it’s well worth the visit. And if you come at the right time, you can watch ships and other vessels be lifted (or lowered) 54 feet as they pass through the locks.
During our time in Panama City, we’ve also started to chip away at dozens of annual maintenance items and our new decommissioning checklist (to prepare the boat for long-term storage). Once we reach the other side of the canal—the Caribbean!—we’ll park Pineapple at Shelter Bay Marina and spend about two weeks getting her buttoned up and ready for hibernation. Then it’s off to the airport with the cats for the long trip back to the USA and the start of our land-based “off season.” There’s a lot to do… but we’re excited!
Next up: I promise to take you through our transit in great detail. But for now, this update on Pineapple in the big city will have to do!
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