So 2000 and Late
I started this website in 2015 and have done a pretty good job at chronicling my journeys in near real-time. But creating entries for trips I’d taken before this website was born has proven to be quite a task – mostly because memory fades over time. That’s one of the reasons I created this website in the first place: to journal every detail of my international trips; to create a sort of “time capsule;” to bottle up and preserve all of the photos and stories and feelings of these amazing experiences before the memories evaporate. But what about all those trips pre-ramblinrandy.com? Like Panama? I’m going to do my best to search through the cobwebs of my brain to access the memories…I’d have to do an email search to even find the first date that I traveled into Panama. I’ve been at least three times, so let’s see what we can find.
So it looks like I’ve been to Panama City at least four times. I only know this because I was able to find receipts for my three stays at the Intercontinental Miramar in my email. I also popped into the city for a quick stop during a long layover once and have uncovered some video evidence of this.
PTY Airport is known as the “Hub of the Americas,” as it offers a gazillion connections to Central, South and even North America. There was a while–in the late 2000s when I was living in Los Angeles–when I was taking frequent trips down to Brasil. The quickest route from LAX was through PTY, so I’d pass through Panama often. I was always amazed at the stunning women working at the duty free shops at Tocumen Airport – really, some of the most beautiful ladies I’d ever seen in my entire life. I wanted to experience some real time in the country, outside of the airport, solely based on the hotties I spotted at PTY…wow! PTY? More like PYT! That’s a Michael Jackson song reference, if you didn’t catch it.
4th of July
I’m pretty sure my first trip into Panama was 4th of July weekend, 2008. I took one of my best friends with me for three nights in Panama City. We had an amazing time! While the details are a bit blurry, I do remember we saw some cultural and city stuff, like The Panama Canal. We did some walking around town. We even met some ladies and went our separate ways for at least one of the nights. I’ll save that story for my upcoming book. All in all, we had a great time. The weather cooperated and I remember enjoying the pool at the hotel at least once. It was a fun weekend, and the direct flight to and from made it an easy trip.
2008 was a little before (good) camera phones existed, so I actually took my huge digital camera with me, along with a little Flip video camera to document some of the experience. This was so long before I’d ever developed my grand dreams of traveling to every country in the world. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was having fun!
Well, I’ll be Damned!
I did a quick YouTube search to see if I’d posted any video of my 4th of July trip to Panama City, and low and behold, I had! Apparently, I produced a whole little montage of clips. So yeah, check it out and enjoy!
The Taco Inspector
So before I took on world travel as “Ramblin’ Randy,” I held a position in office as “The Taco Inspector.” No, really, it was a thing. I’d travel all over town, all across America–even to other countries–in search of the world’s greatest taco. This would include Panama.
I was on the way from LAX to Brasil yet again. It was January 2009 and I’d been laid off from my radio job in Los Angeles, literally, just hours earlier. Coincidentally I had a flight booked to Brasil that night, with a stop in good ‘ol Panama. This time, my layover was long enough to head into town to review tacos. And there’s a video for this, too!
According to my email records, there were also overnight stops in Panama City in both 2012 and 2013, both on the way to Brasil. Sadly, no photographic evidence of these trips exist.
But here I am, updating this blog in 2020 and getting ready for another trip to Panama City – it’s been a long time! This time, to begin my application for residency. I’m not moving to Panama, but I am applying for residency so I can hopefully, eventually hold a second, Panamanian passport one day. I’ve wanted to have dual citizenship for some time, and I’m finally pulling the trigger. I’ll be back soon, with more pictures and hopefully more fun stories! And no karaoke, I promise.
Find a great hotel in Panama City
Guess Who’s Back…Back Again!?
Panama, we meet again! Hace siete años que estaba aqui…it’s been seven years since I’ve been here! At this very moment, I’m coming to you from the 35th floor of the JW Marriott (former Trump Tower) Panama City! And you’ll never guess what brought me back. Go ahead and take a minute to write down your answer for Final Jeopardy as you take in the view that I’m enjoying at this very moment.
The Answer Is…
If you said, “a woman,” good guess, but you’re wrong! (Really good guess, though!) The correct answer: I’m getting a Panama residency. Jeeze, where do I start? None of my friends nor family understand what the heck I’m doing getting a second residency (which will lead to a dual citizenship), so I don’t expect you to…but here’s the short story:
Over the past couple years, I’ve had trouble getting into a handful of countries on an American passport. For example, my visa application for Iran was straight up rejected. I haven’t been able to get into Syria yet. My denials were strictly due to that fact I hold an American passport: because of the poor relations between the USA and the aforementioned countries. I was lucky enough to slip into Venezuela before the country simply stopped issuing visas to Americans. Same for North Korea, except that one is our own law: Our government has since made it illegal to visit the DPRK using your American passport. So that’s four countries right there that I can’t get into with an American passport – and that I absolutely could get into with a passport from almost anywhere else. Having a passport from a second country automatically gives you more freedom to move about. Make no mistake about it, the American passport is one of the most powerful (although maybe not during Corona Virus season), but as you can see, it won’t get you everywhere.
The second reason I wanted a Panamanian passport is for security. I’d rather be traveling on, say, a Panamanian passport, when I visit countries at high risk for terrorism. I know it’s a really small chance, but say I’m snatched up by some extremist banditos while traveling abroad – my head is worth considerably less as a Panamanian, vs. an American, which would probably command the biggest bounty. I’m not overly paranoid about a kidnapping or terrorist situation, but still, I’d feel more at ease without the “Look at me, I’m American!” brochure (a.k.a. my U.S. passport).
And the third reason, which is even more of a stretch than the number two: Say the worst were to happen, and for some reason I had to vacate the USA (nuclear bomb, China takes us over, the mafia puts a hit out on me, etc.)…it’s nice to always have a backup plan; another “home;” somewhere to “escape” to.
Those are all the reasons why I’ve wanted another passport (and nationality) for some time. And I guess you can add reason number four: It’s just kinda cool. I like being an international man of mystery. This is some Jason Bourne stuff right here.
So yeah, those are my reasons. I’ve been researching second citizenships for a few years now, and it’s actually really, really hard to get a passport from another country. Getting a passport from most countries who’ll even allow it involves marrying someone from there and/or having a child in that country, and most importantly, living there. And I’m not ready to leave the USA yet, for many reasons (nor get married!) There are a few countries that allow you to buy citizenship, but the price tag is obscene: ranging from $100,000 to millions. Yes, I said millions. People willing to pay that much money are the ultra-rich, using their second nationality for tax purposes (to shelter money, etc.)
Luckily, for me, and others like me, there are a few countries that offer easier paths. I won’t go into detail, but you can GO HERE to learn more about the easiest countries to earn citizenship in. Panama is dubbed as the absolute easiest, because the investment is minute, and most importantly–and this is a big one–you don’t have to actually stay in Panama to earn your residency and passport. Almost all of the other countries offering citizenship require that you actually stay put there and don’t leave for a long period of time. If I wasn’t gainfully employed and taking care of my dear mother in the US, I’d consider packing up and calling Argentina or Brasil my home for a while, but for the time being, I need to be stateside.
So here I go, on the way to Panama to apply for residency. I’d done a bunch of work ahead of time, and I’d make this initial trip to take my first steps to register for residency. It was a flight I was no stranger to: the LAX – PTY red-eye on Copa. I’d start from San Diego by train to Union Station in Los Angeles, where I’d Door Dashed my dinner from my favorite L.A. Sonoran taco joint – tacos delivered right to the station! Then it was a bus ride over to LAX and an on-time takeoff at 11:37PM. I was Panama-bound!
I managed to work in nearly four hours of sleep on the six-hour flight, which would have to hold me over until I could get to a bed. That wouldn’t be for a while. My first stop was to meet my attorney, directly from the airport. After arriving at the office, located atop a high rise in the city’s Costa Del Este business district, I met my lawyer for the first time in person and signed some paperwork. We then visited the bank where I opened my business account – a requirement to apply for residency. I was happy to unload the $6,000 I had strapped to my thighs – I hate traveling with cash! After the bank, we were done for the day. I took an Uber over to my hotel: This time I’d stay at the former Trump Towers – the JW Marriott in the Punta Pacifica district of the city. I scored a sweet suite on the 35th floor with a big balcony and ocean views. I wanted to sleep so badly, but first, food!
Just to Get (A)Rep(a)
I grabbed an Uber and headed down the street to the Venezuelan Viarepa for an arepa and one of my all-time favorite drinks: papelón con limón. It was just what the doctor ordered, and I swear that papelón was the best I’ve ever had! Then, it was back to the hotel where I’d pack in a nice three-hour nap before waking up for dinner. I waited a little too long to venture out for din-din, and most of the restaurants in the neighborhood were already closing. I settled for a little Arab joint – I was the only customer. I enjoyed a beef wrap, then it was back to bed – I needed to get back on schedule so I could enjoy the rest of the trip.
Day Two Baby Boo
I slept like a king, waking at 9AM. Ahhhh, so nice to have a great night’s snooze! I ate breakfast at the hotel (included with the room) before heading over to the immigration office to register for residency. I met my attorney’s assistant there, Karl, who helped me submit all my paperwork, including photos for my Panamanian ID. We finished with a special stamp in my passport. I was off to the races!
Now that the work was done, let the play commence! It was only Thursday midday, and I’d have ’til Sunday to stomp around Panama. I’d heard about a cool train that travels from Panama City to Colón, a town located on the country’s eastern (Caribbean) coast. How cool to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific in less than an hour. The train travels through the rainforest with glimpses of the canal. Sadly, I arrived to a closed train station. The sign on the door read, “Closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” Que lastima, there would be no train trip for me! At least I was able to see the train, even though I couldn’t ride it. Next time, hopefully!
After being dropped off at the hotel, I took a walk to the nearby grocery store to stock up on supplies. It’s always fun seeing what kind of different items are sold in foreign supermarkets. If you’ve seen some of my other articles, you know this is one of my favorite free activities when I’m abroad. Super 99 was a great store, super clean and offered a large variety of products.
Oh yeah, did I mention that today was Thanksgiving? Luckily I didn’t have to eat alone. I belong to a Facebook group of extreme travelers, and we make it a habit of meeting up when we find ourselves in the same foreign country. I Ubered it over to Bolivar Plaza to meet my buddy Adam for an awesome Thanksgiving dinner at a tourist joint called Panama Hat. Adam’s from the UK and was on a layover from Dubai to Jamaica. The food was good and the conversation was awesome, as we traded travel stories in between bites and sips.
Day number three, a Friday in Panama. I slept til 9, enjoyed breakfast at the hotel, and then had to head back to meet my attorney and sign one last document at the bank. That was the very last of my “business” here in Panama – now, two days to have some fun! I had an Uber take me back to Simon Bolivar Plaza in Casco Viejo (the old town) and enjoyed getting lost in the old neighborhood. I’d cover a lot of ground today. Here were some of my favorite scenes:
I could’ve spent days wandering every nook and cranny of Casco Viejo – there was truly so much to see and a story around every corner. There were so many neat little bars restaurants and shops. I especially enjoyed seeing some of the old buildings that hadn’t yet been refurbished. I imagined how much fun it would be to buy one of these crumbling old beauties and restore it to perfection myself, as I created my own hotel or B&B. That would be so cool! Of course, then I remember the movie The Money Pit. It always seems like a good idea in the beginning!
The Other Side of the Tracks
I think the neighborhood started to really change at Plaza de Santa Ana. That seemed to be just about the place that old Panama City transitioned from the near-immaculate touristy section, to a grittier and more “real” locals’ area, with a thriving market and commerce section, as I eventually wandered onto the bustling Avenida Central. This was just the kind of place I absolutely adore – the type of real, local life that you won’t find in the guidebooks or any “Top 20 Things to Do” list on the internet. There wasn’t another tourist in sight – just people, produce, noise, music, smells…Ahhhhhh, this was everyday Panama and I was so happy to be suddenly swept up in it all.
I took the video below, more for the “audio.” I was enamored by the recording of the man hawking fruit. Wish I could get ahold of the original recording…would be great to play (and quiz students) in a Spanish class.
–Robin Williams as Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam
Oooh, it was a hot one. Probably not even one of the hottest days here, but the humidity multiplied the uncomfortableness exponentially. It wasn’t long before I was sopping wet. Wearing jeans wasn’t helping the situation. Against my better judgment, I decided to foot the .7 mile trip to the “Panama” sign. On the way, I ventured down into the subway at the Cinco De Mayo station just to take a look, but didn’t take a ride – maybe tomorrow. I finally approached the water, crossing over on a pedestrian bridge to reach the famous Instagram spot aka the parador fotografico. I took a few shots, then surrendered to an Uber ride back to the hotel. It would have been a nice two-mile walk if it weren’t for the heat.
For dinner I decided to foot the mile trip back over to Viarepa, only to arrive to a shuttered building. ¡Qué lástima, closed! Luckily, Talulú was open, and was just a five-minute Uber ride away. This time it was an arepa and two papelónes! 15,000 steps today – I’d earned it! A tasty ending to a fabulous day!
Day number four was by far the most relaxing and leisurely of them all, with a late breakfast at the hotel before I eventually stumbled outside and over to the seafood market to take a look – I always love a good a good fish market. Sadly, it must’ve been bad timing: They’d already just about closed up shop. Maybe I read the times wrong; maybe it was because it was a Saturday. ¿Quién sabe? But by the time I arrived, there were only a few stalls open at Mercado De Marisco Cinta Costera, and even those vendors were hosing it off and shutting it down. I’d have to come back one day, much earlier maybe? Oh, it was Panama’s Día de Independencia, so that was probably the reason for the early shutdown. It was time to party!
Two to Tango
I decided to wander back into the old town and have a drink at a restaurant I’d admired the day before. Marzola Parrilla Argentina was an Argentinian steakhouse and bar stuffed to the brim with cool, vintage doo-dads and knick-knacks. From old telephones and sewing machines, to antique clocks and cash registers, Marzola reminded me of the many antique stores of Buenos Aires. My eyes stayed busy surveying the million details from the floor to the ceiling while enjoying a couple daiquiris to cool me down. I loved everything about this place, especially the sign that said, “We don’t have Wi-Fi…Talk to each other!” I saw a couple plates come out from kitchen and was disappointed that I still had a very full belly from breakfast. I have to come back for dinner next time!
I’d noticed the neatest looking “corkscrew” shaped, glass skyscraper a few times since arriving three days ago. After a Google search and reading its description, I knew I had to take a closer look. I had nothing else on the agenda, so I Ubered over to F&F Tower in the Obarrio district. I sure wish they offered tours, and I didn’t think I’d get past security if I tried wandering in on a weekend, so instead, I just walked the perimeter, snapping away as I tried to capture every angle through the trees and telephone wires. It sure was a work of art!
Pokin’ Around in Panamá
With nothing else on the agenda, and still a few hours of sunlight, I Googled “Venezuelan restaurants” and found a bakery a half-mile away. I wasn’t that hungry, but sure could go for another Papelón con Limón. I really enjoyed traversing the neighborhood, as the path led me directly into a really nice residential district. It wasn’t luxurious or “fancy” by any means, but it sure was tidy and very charming. I passed by lots of nice low-rise apartments and little shops, finally arriving at Los Venezolanos. Sadly, they were already closed, but the neighborhood I’d arrived in was just so neat, the trip was not made in vain. I finished my visit by taking a seat on the wooden bleachers of Andres Bello Park and people watching for a bit. The people were friendly and a lady with a face mask donning the Venezuelan flag greeted me with a Buenas tardes and como esta? I thought about chatting her up about her homeland (I assumed she was a Venezolana), but I was just about out of energy.
About Venezuela: I’m going to assume by now, you may have caught a whiff of my fascination with the country. It’s one of my favorite countries in the entire world and sort of a “forbidden fruit” for foreigners these days – especially non-native Spanish speakers like me – due to the extreme crime and unrest. As most know, Venezuela was once one of the world’s richest countries and only over the last few years, sadly, has fell into an enormous depression, leading to extreme poverty and rampant crime. It’s the wild, wild west over there these days, and for me, part of my attraction to Venezuela is the fact that I shouldn’t go there! You always want things you can’t have, right? I ended up going 2018, and although I was a nervous wreck, it turned out to be one of my favorite trips of all time, even though I only lasted 36 hours. You can see my full Venezuela report HERE. So yeah, I’m always excited to eat Venezuelan food and meet Venezuelans…and there isn’t much of either where I live in California.
Getting to Know You…Getting to Know All About You…
I had such a great time in Panamá this trip. It’s true, I always have a nice time here – but this time I stayed longer, saw things I’d never seen, explored areas I’ve never explored, and even ate new things. It was like a whole new Panamá City, and I can’t believe I’d been so many times and hadn’t explored Casco Viejo or La Central. I had such a great time.
It didn’t take long to remember how many beautiful shades of skin color exist in Panama. Truly a “melting pot” in every sense of the word, Panama is home to some of the prettiest caramel skin I’d ever seen. The people are oh so friendly, and I’d forgotten about all that Salsa music! Most Uber drivers had the local radio stations on, with DJs who’d sing along on the microphone right over the lyrics – sometimes through the whole song! That would never fly in America!
Finally, the city is very safe and super clean. The modern, glass high rises along the water offer so many great hotel options, while the old city with its classic architecture remains available to peruse. It’d been so long, I’d almost forgotten how much I loved Panama. I will be proud to call it my second nationality.
Volver, Volver (The Return)
And just like that, less than three months later, I was touching down in Panama once again. I needed to fulfill part two of the immigration application process. I’ll spare you the tedious details, but it required I come down in person again. Go ahead, twist my arm!
The interesting part was that my attorney told me I should allow at least five business days for the process – but she’d try and get it done sooner if she could. I treat every single vacation day like gold, so I certainly wasn’t going to plan on staying in Panama for five full days in case I’d be done in two – so ventured down to Panama City on a one-way ticket with only two night’s hotel booked. I was indeed flying by the seat of my pants and I was absolutely okay with that. I studied the return routes meticulously, flirting with the idea of stopping by another country on the way home. Though I’d long ago completed all of the “Americas,” I figured I’d enjoy seeing a new city like San Salvador or San Pedro Sula. A return to Havana was an option until I read that I’d have to quarantine there. But I really wanted to pop into Caracas again – albeit probably the worst time in history to be an American in Venezuela. It was a tad nerve-wracking, but more exciting than anything, to be in Panama without a return ticket. The possibilities were endless.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: As exciting as it sounds to fly into a foreign country without a ticket home, be advised that many times the airlines will not allow you to board without proof of onward travel – in other words, a ticket leaving the country you’re flying into. Such was the case of Panama. Luckily, this wasn’t my first rodeo, and I’d spent the five dollars at fakeflighttickets.com for the fix. Oh yes, that’s a real site, and they sell paper “tickets” (not real bookings) to wherever you want to go in the world, using real routes and airline timetables. I’m not advising you to go this route, but if you ever need that pesky “proof of onward travel,” there’s your option.
I landed just after 2PM and grabbed a thirty-dollar cab into the city. While this was my sixth time in Panama, my accommodations (at least the location) would be drastically different than all times before. This time, instead of staying near the water in the touristy section, I would get a hotel smack dab in the middle of a local neighborhood. As soon as the taxi pulled up to my hotel, I instantly knew this was the right move – in fact, I should’ve been staying here all along.
During my first four stays in Panama City, I’d chosen the towering InterContinental Miramar Panama, located along the highway-like Avenida Balboa. Overlooking the water, the hotel has amazing views, but really isn’t next to anything interesting – it’s a decent trek across the busy road to get into the adjacent neighborhood, which wasn’t anything special. On my most-recent stay, I splurged and stayed at the JW Marriott, which included a sweet balcony overlooking the sea. The hotel was located on a little peninsula called Punta Pacifica, which was indeed really nice, but pretty isolated and full of just really nice high-rises with not much charm or local flavor at all.
It was during my last stay (detailed above) where I really got to spend a lot of time on foot, exploring the different neighborhoods of Panama City. That’s when I discovered a really cool section of town called Obarrio. It’s hard to pinpoint just exactly what turned me on to Obarrio, but I definitely caught its vibe immediately after traipsing in. From its narrow, tree-lined streets loaded with local cafés and bars, to its charming low-rise 1950s and 60s apartment buildings (all with their own names) and of course that darling little Andres Bello Park, Obarrio is the type of neighborhood I could definitely see myself living in if I did decide to move to Panama permanently. So it was only natural I go for a hotel in that area this time.
I chose the AC Hotel by Marriott which is just outside Obarrio, in the Área Bancaria (Banking Area). Ahhh, yes – this was much better. Although I wouldn’t get a view of the sea, I would marvel at the glass skyscrapers all around me. My room had an enormous wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling glass window that looked out into the city around me. The rooftop infinity pool on the 14th floor had even more spectacular views. And if the sweeping, high-up vistas of the city weren’t enough, the scenes, smells and sights on the ground below would complete the whole package. Calle Ricardo Arias is a one-way, narrow street, without too much traffic or noise. The coolest corner market is located just feet from the hotel’s entrance. This place had fresh produce, pastries, all the snacks and treats you could dream of, and even a little deli/cafeteria display with hot foods ready to be scooped up and put in a box. There were a couple robust souvenir shops on the block and a good-looking brewery called Birreria. On the next corner was a big indoor/outdoor Lebanese restaurant called Beirut. And directly across the street, a beautiful pasteleria (bakery) with every kind of cookie, cake and sweetbread you could imagine. What a horrible time to start my diet – but I’d recently reached the point of no return (weight-wise) and needed to turn things around fast. As you’ll soon see, this entire trip was one giant (and very difficult) test of my willpower. I should note that this street is also working territory to about eight or ten “ladies of the night,” but they didn’t seem to bother anyone, and for street workers, a few of them sure were stunners!
I laid low (really, really low) that first afternoon and night. Between being a Sunday and a quarantine day, the city (at least my surroundings) felt like a complete ghost town. But I needed some chill-time anyway: Waking at 5AM that morning for the flight and being crammed in seat 22A for four hours, I didn’t need my arm twisted to stay put for the remainder of the day. I unpacked and relaxed in my room for a while, before enjoying some ceviche for dinner at the hotel restaurant and calling it a night.
Monday morning’s business started by heading over to my attorney’s office in the Costa Del Este district for our 9AM meeting. Idaliz looked even more stunning than the first time, wearing a tight, leopard-print skirt and high-\ heels that showed off a fresh pedicure. With her jet-black hair, caramel skin and those classic Panamanian curves…wow! How did I get so lucky?! I’d have asked her to dinner if it weren’t for that big rock on her ring finger. But back to business: We headed to the bank for a “proof of account/funds” letter and certified checks or the immigration office. By 9:45AM we were done for the day and Idaliz was driving me back to my hotel (that was very nice of her). I was done for the day and was officially on “free time” until tomorrow!
First on the agenda, a Corona test so I could get home. The test is valid for three days, which meant if I was able to leave on Thursday or before, this test would be good. I still didn’t know how long I’d be in Panama this time. The test, taken right outside of Punta Pacifica Hospital, was super quick and set me back $95. Now that we got that out the way, it was time for some fun.
!Vamos a Venezuela!
On my last trip to Panama I drooled at how close Venezuela was, and how quick and easy a flight there could be, if it wasn’t for the visa “issue.” Over the past couple of years—due to deteriorating relations between the US and Venezuela—all of the Venezuelan embassies in America had been shuttered, making it almost (maybe even completely) impossible for an American to obtain a tourist visa. Kinda makes sense – after all, the US has officially put out a bounty on Maduro’s head, soooooooooo…yeah, things are kind of awkward. But all this just made me want to visit Caracas even more. I’m oddly and heavily attracted to places I can’t and frankly shouldn’t visit – I know, it’s weird. So before I left California, I’d paid for a fully notarized invite from a Venezuelan tourist guide in case I could work things out. I’d plan to pop into the Venezuelan Embassy of Panama and try my luck. And what did you know, it was conveniently located less than a quarter of a mile from my hotel. I didn’t plan this!
I’m really bummed they made me completely turn off my phone before entering the embassy, because just like the property in San Francisco, this was another beautifully detailed and nationalistic office that I would’ve loved to capture at least one photo of. There were a couple huge paintings/prints of national hero Simon Bolivar on the walls and displayed on easels, along with, of course, Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro homages. That bright and beautiful Venezuelan flag of yellow, blue and red adorned every wall. Kind of like the DMV, there were a couple different waiting areas with chairs lined up like a classroom. Glass service windows with clerks behind them received and gave back paperwork to Venezuelans there for reasons I did not know. Behind one of the rows of glass windows sat a giant table, with what looked like hundreds of passports lined up, ready for distribution. I wondered if there was anyone at the embassy I could talk into processing a Venezuelan passport for me – wouldn’t that be cool?! I fantasized about slipping a couple of the embassy employees notes with monetary offers (bribes), to see if they could somehow order a passport for me. Now would be my only chance. And I couldn’t get arrested for it – I wasn’t in Venezuela after all. It was a fun fantasy.
Seconds later I was called to the window where I mustered up my best Spanish to inquire about a visa. My Spanish was awful on this trip, suffering terribly due to the recent December trip to the Lusophone nation of Guinea Bissau, where I did my best to forget my Spanish and transition to Portuguese (It’s one or the other for me – the two languages conflict terribly.) As a back up, I presented a small, typed note explaining (in Spanish) my intentions. The lady asked me to have a seat and then a few minutes later called me back up to hand me a list of absurd requirements. Of all my travels and visa pursuits, this requirement list was the longest and most unrealistic: a laundry list of very specific and detailed items, including some almost impossible documents to obtain, such as an “original” notarized letter of invitation from Venezuela. Were they really expecting my tour guide to send the original, physical copy to me? How would he even get it to me??? The insane list of requirements, warnings from my guide about visiting Caracas now, and the “radical” quarantine set in place by Maduro this week all added up to one giant “no.” I couldn’t have gone if I wanted to – there was no way I could fulfill all their requirements, and even if I did, who knows how long it would take to be approved (or denied) – it could be weeks…or months! But I absolutely loved visiting the embassy. In a way, I felt like I was actually “in” Venezuela for a few minutes.
I Have Questions: I have been super intrigued (obsessed, really) by Venezuela’s political landscape over the past five years, specifically, the main Pro-Maduro vs. Anti-Maduro arguments and supporters/side-takers. My question here: Is everyone working in the embassy pro-Maduro? I mean, they work for the man, right? Are they all hard-core Chavistas? And if some are anti-Maduro, do they dare talk politics with one another? I would love to know what all goes on behind the scenes at an embassy like this, during such turbulent times for their country.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em!
If I wasn’t going to Venezuela this time, at least I could eat like a Venezuelan! As you’ve read earlier in this same blog, I really take advantage of the arepa availability when in Panama, and there were arepas abound! The closest one—according to Google—was D’Arepas Gourmet, less than a half-mile from the hotel. The place ended up being nothing but a food counter inside the coolest little food court on the bottom floor of an office building. Since I was on my little dieta, I’d order two arepas and just eat the insides: all the protein-y stuff, and put those beautiful corn patties off to the side. Today I would order the llanera and pabellon arepas. (HERE is their menu, if you want to take a look).
I took a seat outside to enjoy these treats with a knife and fork as I watched the people passing by. The man who brought the food to my table (I think also the owner) was Alexander from Caracas. I told him how much I loved his city (and country) and how I wanted to return. He shuddered at the picture I showed him of me in Caracas in front of a Hugo Chavez mural. “No good!,” he exclaimed. I tried to explain I wasn’t a Chavista but simply loved his country and its people. He had me take down his number and asked me to stay in touch. Then he offered me one of my favorite drinks of all time: You guessed it, Papelón con Limon. I explained my complete and utter adoration of this drink: “Me encanta papelón, pero no puedo porque estoy en una dieta.” I swear, I need to lose at least 15 pounds before I return to Panama City again so I can go nuts next time. There would be no Papelón for me today.
After my meal, I headed back to the room to relax a little, taking in some of the cool, retro apartment buildings on my way back to the hotel.
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
With still a few hours of daylight remaining, I searched for something else in the city I haven’t done. The answer was clear: a hike up Cerro Ancón. A 653-foot high hill that overlooks the city, Ancón is an area in Panama that was used for administration of the Panama Canal. It was under U.S. jurisdiction as part of the Panama Canal Zone until being returned to Panama in 1977. Largely undeveloped, the area is now a reserve. The hill includes the highest point in Panama City.
The hike starts with a few flights of really steep concrete stairs, before continuing on a winding, narrow, asphalt road. I immediately heard the rustling of animals in the fauna off to each side of me and wondered what could be lurking behind the bushes and trees. Soon enough I’d see them: Central American agoutis, wandering about. They were too timid to let me get close, but it was still cool to see these little guys. A saw a few really beautiful butterflies too, dark black with bright red spots on each wing. They were small, but so colorful and graceful as they fluttered about. There was no way I was stepping off of the path though – just inches from the road lay plenty of big spider webs manned by big spiders. I wanted no part of that!
I enjoyed intermittent views of the city as I passed by openings in the trees on the way up. There was one more flight of stairs close to the top, before I reached the very top. There, a couple lookout points – one overlooking the city and sea, the other (on the opposite side), with a view of the Panama Canal. A giant flag towered over the peak – you could hear the enormous bandera flapping in the wind from far away. I saw just one other small family on the entire hike. It was a nice hour of exercise and solitude, and at times felt like I was far away from the city. It was a great way to work off those arepas, too!
The Other Side of the Tracks
After descending the hill, I headed towards the water, walking through a neighborhood I probably shouldn’t have – but the colored buildings and soccer fields were too much of a temptation to pass up. But I was glad I did. El Chorillo was a happening little barrio, filled with humble dwellings, little stores and kids playing in the streets. Twice I passed excited men shouting over P.A. systems to an animated crowd of residents – I assume these guys were men of God speaking the good word. I ducked into a supermarket for a bottle of water and bag of peanuts. It was really cool to be among the locals – outside of both the touristy and wealthy banking districts. Soon the slums turned into the historic Casco Viejo district, where I took a seat at Herrera Plaza to call an Uber. My dogs were definitely barking.
I tried the Lebanese joint for dinner that night. It wasn’t my best meal, but maybe I just ordered the wrong thing. Soon, it was off to bed – I’d head to the immigration office early the next morning for a 7:30 appointment.
I met Karl, Idaliz’s assistant, at the immigration office early the next morning. After filling out some paperwork and heading back and forth to a couple windows, it was official: I had my temporary residence card. It may not seem like a big deal, but this was absolutely huge for me – maybe even a dream come true. I’d been obsessed with obtaining a second nationality for years now–even losing $1,000 chasing a fake ID–and here it was, in my hand: my real Panama ID! Wow! I tried to control my excitement, but man, was I stoked! While this isn’t “citizenship” nor a passport, it is a very important step in that direction. I was so jazzed! Once again I was done for the day. Karl would come back the next day to (hopefully) pick up my “visa multiple” which I would need to leave the country, return my passport to me, and I could be on my way. I headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a cappuccino at the pasteleria before doing some more exploring.
Oh Boy, Obarrio!
I thought I’d talk a walk over to Andres Bello Park again, and see what was going on in my favorite neighborhood of Obarrio. I was excited to stumble upon the Einstein statue I’d read about online, walking into it completely by accident on the way to the park. The park was totally empty, so I sat for just a spell and then moved on. It was time to finally try the metro.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: There is a Best Western just steps away from Andres Bello Park, if you’re looking for a nice place to stay in the area. You already know my love for Obarrio and this little park – this hotel seems like a great choice! Looks super nice and at a great price.
Take the A-Train
I’d walked down into the subway on my last visit but didn’t actually ride – I saved it for this trip. Now it was go-time! I would take the metro over to the fish market for lunch. I love a new challenge!
I descended into the Via Argentina station, buying a two-dollar metro card and filling it with a few bucks. Turned out entrance onto the platform was just 35 cents! The stations and cars were clean, and it took just a few minutes to cruise over to the Cinco de Mayo station where I’d exit and foot it over to the fish market. My first Panamanian subway ride was a success!
I really enjoyed the four-dollar little cup of fresh ceviche at the market. I could’ve eaten three or four, but wanted to save room for an arepa later. My waiters were two guys from Venezuela, and once again I enjoyed telling them how much I loved their country. Juan was from a city called Marinas (which I couldn’t find on the map, maybe I misheard him) and MacGyver was from Valencia. And yes, MacGyver was his real name – he was proud to show me his ID. The Venezuelan “McGyver,” how cool! I enjoyed hanging around the fish market, nibbling, chatting and people and bird watching.
I Love Buildings
By now you already know I have a fascination with cool architecture. Who doesn’t? Which is why I had to take a closer look at this insane apartment building near the fish market, which only pictures can describe. You’ll notice that it’s a building within a building – a tower shoots straight up inside the bigger, curving building – like a stamen between a flower’s petals. I’d never seen a design quite like this and had to come in for a closer look.
Come On Ride the Train
I thought I’d spend the next hour or so exploring the subway routes, so I jumped back on at Cinco DeMayo and rode Line One all the way to the end: San Ysidro station. I enjoyed escaping the city for spell and checking out what the outskirts of town looked like through the big glass windows of the subway car, that soon left the dark subterranean and sailed through the sunshine on elevated tracks. I exited at the end of the line and took a 20-minute walk through the streets neighboring the San Ysidro stop. There wasn’t much to write home about, but I enjoyed passing a couple hundred feet of vendor stands, selling produce, lottery tickets and socks. I passed a bakery and a small grocery store before heading back to the train. There wasn’t much to see but I enjoyed knowing what lay outside of town.
Arepas 3 and 4
I headed back to D’Arepas Gourmet, this time for a Campestre arepa and repeat of the Llanera. While I was waiting to order my sandwiches, I saw a man deliver three jugs of fresh juice to the neighboring food counter. The clear bottles displayed the bright citrus-yellow juice and I could see the thick pulp through the plastic. I couldn’t resist. I inquired with the cashier and he told me limonada. Yes, I’ll take one! He mixed the fresh concentrate with a few scoops of pure cane sugar (there goes the diet) and ice, put it all in a blender and served me up the best frozen lemonade I’d had in my entire life. I’d displayed incredible willpower up until now, but the fact that this juice was literally just now delivered, meant it was the absolute freshest. I couldn’t say no. It was worth it.
Time to Go
Wednesday consisted of strictly chill time while I waited for Karl to return my passport and visa multiple, which he did, close to 2PM. With nothing else on the agenda for the day, and a 6:04PM flight to Chicago finally booked, I decided I’d take the extra time to use the subway to get to the airport. I was in no rush and wanted to see how the trip would fare. I’d take Line 1 to the San Miguelito station, where I’d transfer to Line 2 and I’d ride to Estacion Corredor Sur. From there, I’d grab an Uber to take me the remaining mile-and-a-half over to the airport. The best news was discovering that an extension track directly to the airport was under construction – now that’s awesome!
RAMBLIN’ TIP: If–and only if–you have lots of extra time, take the subway to the airport! It’ll save you a few bucks, but more importantly, show you some of Panama City that you might not otherwise see. The big glass windows of the metro offer sweeping views of communities you would not otherwise get to see from the highway.
You should know that Uber, in general, is so very cheap in Panama – so you’re only saving ten or twenty dollars – but the experience is cool, especially if you have extra time. It will be even more convenient once the track to the airport is complete. It took me close to 90 minutes to get to the airport from the Santo Tomas station, including the 1.5 mile Uber connection – so by all means, if you don’t have a lot of extra time, just call a car.
See You Soon!
My permanent residency application should be approved within six months, so Panama, I will see you again soon!