I had never heard of a Shopping Tour before. But Panama is known for its shopping, having access to goods from around the world. It is a diverse city with ancient stories, international influence and a cosmopolitan skyline.
Border Town Bound
I departed San Jose, Costa Rica at 11pm embarking on a long, and I mean long, bus ride to Panama. At 6am we arrived at the Panama/Costa Rica border town which was dirty and busy. However, I highly suggest the empanada from the street vendor; it was fantastic! It took 4 hours in a line up at the border as there was only one window open to exit/enter the country. I was informed to make sure my passport was stamped with the correct date and signed by the officer. Often, this crucial task is not done and it really makes it difficult to re-enter another country. The customs officer also asked to see that I had cash on me and demanded to see cash in my wallet. I always get nervous at borders. I feel the impulse to blurt out load that I have drugs on me or even worse, that I have fruit in my bag that I picked while walking in a foreign farm in the last 7 days! But instead I managed to keep my mouth shut and show the man my money. Maybe he wanted a bribe? I don’t know, but being blonde and playing dumb has often helped me get out of sticky situations.
Shop 'till you Drop
We arrived in Panama city after another 6 hour bus ride from the border. Panama city is a diverse city with ancient stories, international influence and a cosmopolitan skyline. There is an obvious discrepancy between the rich and poor. Food is very inexpensive and good, especially the seafood with a Creole touch. Shopping malls are not lacking in Panama. There are luxurious centers such as Multiplaza, mega outlet store areas, markets and malls and malls and more malls. And really, I've discovered that all mall feel the same no matter what country you are in. Being not much of a shopper, I at least appreciated the exercise, the cuisine and drooling over the top brand named stores such as Gucci, Chanal and pretty much any stores that you can find on Rodeo Dr. I found that Allbrook Mall was huge and had the best selection of everything you would expect from a mall. I took a taxi back to my hotel and was told to not pay more than $3 US. By the way, the common currency is US Dollars. They are accepted everywhere. The Panamanian currency is the Balboa, but I rarely saw any, except for some coins. I also visited the town of Colon on the Atlantic side of the country. It is about 1.5 drive from Panama City. The main purpose of this town is, you guessed it, SHOPPING! You have to show your passport to enter the tax free zone where you find roads and roads of stores. These are the big outlet stores, meant to be visited by businesses who then ship to anywhere and everywhere in the world. Little ol' me just bought a pair of shoes and a bottle of perfume, duty-free. The best part was the Creole chicken cooked by a street vendor. I am a brave woman who has always ventured to eat street food against all suggestions not to. I believe it is some of the best food to find, and not once have I been sick.
The canal is quite spectacular to see. It's one of those places that you always hear about and learn about in school. But to actually be there was for me to be a part of something big. The building of the canal has a long and desperate history as there were many fortures made with the consequence of death for others. Many claimed glory in the disguise of oppression. I visited the Gatun locks on the Atlantic side of the Canal. It was quiet when we arrived and we had a biligual guide explain the system of locks and the history of the canal to us. Make sure to call ahead to find out the schedule so that you can see the large freighters and boats passing through because we didn't and we could barely see the last boats passing through the other end. There was a $5 entry charge and a great little souvenier shop.
If you want to Party
Calle Uruguay was a great place to enjoy the nightlife. It is a few blocks occupied by internationally influenced restaurants and classy while centered in the business district. This is where the upper class go to let loose. I casually crashed a fancy rooftop party in a fabulous hotel overlooking the city and sea. The buffet was delicious and I sat by the pool with a glass of wine while Latin music swayed throught the air. No one seemed to notice the Canadian girl who was totally underdressed for the occassion! My next stop was the Amador Causeway. It is a collection of old buildings who were built and occupied by the American government during the building of the Canal. I entered the party zone in a line up and I was frisked for weapons and asked for my ID and to pay a $2 cover charge. The people here seemed a little more down to earth, locals and ready to dance! As I approached the a private courtyard, I realized that there was an entire block of old buildings that were all nightclubs with everything from reggae, to techno-dance to rock. Thank goodness there were food stands inside for for that after-clubbing chicken or burrito! I left just before sunrise and the clubs were still hopping...
All in all, Panama City was an eye-opener to a vast difference between rich and poor. The tours were great, but I got the feeling that foreigners are not entirely welcome, whether from another Latin American country or North America. I felt safe enough, but I wouldn't go wandering around at night alone. There are a lot of places to visit, great tours, malls, the Canal, but do your homework first and have a plan. It is truly an international city offering a variety of sights, food, shopping and goods from worldwide. Definitely a must see at least once in a lifetime!