Welcome to Panama City
In the beginning of July 2015 we cross the Panama Canal and drop anchor near Flamenco Island in Panama City, at the Pacific entrance of Panama Canal. It takes us a few days to visit the most important sites in town and to learn all we need to know about the place: how to get around by bus and where to find the cheapest groceries, fruits and vegetables. The anchorage and the city are our new “home” for the next few months.
Panama City is the biggest city and the capital of Panama with many tall dense skyscrapers standing on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, facing west. Almost half of the population of the entire country (3.6 million total population) or about 1.5 million live in the metropolitan area, creating notorious traffic jams in the morning and evening hours when commuters drive to work or back home using the only two bridges across the canal connecting the suburbs with downtown. The Bridge of the Americas and the Centenario Bridge also connect the South and the North American continents, divided by Panama Canal.
After sailing in the Caribbean and some of the Latin American countries, Panama City seams surprisingly developed to us, with good infrastructure and big shopping malls; a globalized place greatly influenced by the United States of America during the construction of Panama Canal. Panama City is a hub for international banking and commerce with the largest and busiest international airport in Central America, as well as one of the top five places in the world for retirement, according to International Living magazine (from Wikipedia). With the very noticeable exception of the infamous neighborhood El Chorillo, poor dirty and dangerous place right in the middle of town, Panama City is a big well developed modern metropolis, a clean good-looking city.
The main tourist attraction here, besides Panama Canal, is the Old Quarter or Casco Viejo (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with its colonial buildings, cathedrals, fortification wall and ruins from the time when Panama was the departure point for expeditions and conquests to the Inca Empire in Peru and a transit point for gold and silver headed back to Spain hauled by mules and big canoes through the Isthmus, long before the canal was built.
We walk around the narrow streets in Casco Viejo snapping pictures of the bright Cathedral at Plaza de Bolivar; of the National Institute of Culture; of the president’s residence or the equivalent of the White House, Palacio de las Garzas (Herons’ Palace); of the heavy church at Plaza de la Independencia, all surrounded by the Cinta Costera– an elegant highway built in the sea.
We stroll around Las Bóvedas (The Vaults), a waterfront promenade jutting out into the Pacific, where Kuna women from the San Blas islands sell their handcrafted molas to tourists. From here we can see, beyond the small fishing boats at Mercado de Mariscos (the Fish Market), the high-rise buildings of Panama City’s Downtown to the east and the small twin-islands at the end of town to the west, where all big and small ships and boats are anchored at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, waiting to transit.
This is the only anchorage area in Panama City. There is no other option to drop anchor but on the east or west sides of Amador Causeway, near the entrance of Panama Canal.
Amador is the artificial road built with the rocks and dirt excavated from the canal, linking mainland with Isla Perico and Isla Flamenco. It is a beautiful scenic road with many restaurants, marinas and shops- a popular weekend destinations for locals and tourists alike.
Both anchorages at Amador are far from ideal. Most yachts chose the bigger east one, facing downtown. It is much more densely populated by boats, access to shore is difficult, especially if you don’t have a dinghy and have to paddle in a kayak, as the spots closest to shore are always taken, the bay is dirty and producing water with the watermaker would clog the filters. It is a very protected anchorage with good holding, except during east squalls hitting the area almost every afternoon in the rainy season (from July to November).
This is why we remain in the west anchorage near Marina La Playita, even though it is not our favorite anchorage at all. It is the worst anchorage we have ever been to when it comes to rocking and rolling, worse than Barbados. The pilot boats going between the marina bringing supplies to the ships out in the bay waiting to transit the canal, or the motorboats going to Taboga Island 7 miles away, are zooming way too fast through the anchorage all the time creating huge tsunamis and sometimes even bumping into the anchored yachts. A guy on a catamaran once fell from his bed because of the huge sudden wave and got hurt badly, and a boat got hit and damaged right in front of our eyes one bright morning. It took us some getting used to this situation and we still wake up at night terrified from the extreme rocking of the boat and the loud engines. In the beginning we thought Fata Morgana will capsize…
Another inconvenience here is access to shore. The only option for cruisers is to dinghy to the dock at the marina for a fee of 35 dollars per week, no matter how many days of the week you will or will not use the dinghy dock. And you cannot share dinghy rides with other boaters, as the people at the marina who are huge assholes, super rude and greedy, told us only two people per dinghy are included in the price. And no guests are aloud. The rules and the excessive fees are stupid and offending and we quickly found an alternative- a small rocky beach that can only be accessed “safely” by kayak (dinghies would damage their motors on the rocks here and are too heavy to pull up). In fact it too is a bit dangerous, as there are huge rocks and waves and we have to jump out of the kayak as soon as we land on the rocks, otherwise we end up in the water (happened a couple of times). Then we have to pull the kayak all the way up (about 10-20 steep meters, depending on the sea level), as the tides here are impressive (up to 6 meters), and we don’t want our precious kayak to disappear at high tide…
And then, we abandon the kayak, unattended, up on the rocks, hoping no one will steal it. Returning after dark, finding the kayak, getting it down, and walking on the rocks is another matter… But we got used to all this too, and it is the only free of charge option to access shore on this side. (We are the only cruisers doing this. Everyone else in the anchorage is paying for the dinghy docks per week.) Here at least the water is a bit cleaner for the watermaker and we are protected from the east winds. A good thing about both anchorages is that they are safe, away from residential areas and fishermen settlements.
We established something like a routine. In the morning we kayak to shore and run. Ivo is training for a full marathon in November (42km) and is following a strict program, and Maya and I are training for 5 and 10-kilometer runs. Then we go back to the boat, relax for a bit and then we go to Albrook Mall, at least once or twice a week.
The first time we went to Albrook was legendary. After a month in the San Blas archipelago where we met the Kuna Indians living on their small islands without electricity and running water, and with very limited supplies of food, we had depleted our stores and were eager to do some shopping. Off we go to Albrook Mall. As soon as we enter through the doors we start laughing like lunatics who have been let out of the lunatic asylum for the first time in years, and we can’t stop smiling for hours walking through the mall. I can’t explain why…
Albrook is a different country. A vast country with its own air-conditioned atmosphere smelling of cinnamon, where it never rains and the streets are always safe. The only traffic jams here are created by people walking around, especially near the food courts at noon, and by the small train circulating on the first floor. Albrook is the biggest shopping mall in the Americas (in both the South and the North American continents). It is the 14th largest shopping mall in the world. Albrook is bigger than West Edmonton Mall in Canada and much bigger than the biggest shopping mall in the United States of America (which is on 30th place in the list). It covers a territory of 380 000 square meters on three floors (Paradise Center in Sofia, Bulgaria covers 175 000 square meters), and it has over 700 stores, 3 food courts with over 100 restaurants, a cinema complex, a supermarket, and a video games and bowling room.
To navigate in Albrook we follow a map. There are many entrances to the Mall and each entrance has a big statue of an animal. The Tiger entrance has an orange tiger at the door, and the Rhino entrance has a statue of a rhino. There is a Dino, a Coala, an Orca entrance, and many many others. Albrook is also the main bus terminal of the city. All buses to everywhere depart from Albrook and for us coming from Amador it’s just a 10-minute bus ride (but sometimes we wait for more than an hour for the bus to come…)
Unlike the two biggest shopping malls in the world (both in China) which are in danger of becoming “dead malls” failing to attract business and shoppers, the Albrook Mall is very much alive and booming every day of the week, even though it is not the only big shopping mall in Panama. Why is Albrook so popular, you may ask? Mainly, because it’s cheap. Most of the stores here offer cheap low quality products, as well as some good quality brand names at discount prices. Here everyone from the middle class as well as the underprivileged families come to buy cheap stuff. We cross path with many Kuna families, the women wearing their traditional dress, here to stock up. (Half of the Kuna Indians have moved and live permanently in Panama City and work in the lowest paying jobs- cleaning and maintenance. The women keep wearing proudly their traditional Kuna Yala clothing.)
The other mall in Panama City is Multiplaza and it is a much more luxurious, expensive and quiet place than Albrook. It also covers a large territory on three floors.
Some of the high-end designer stores here include: Dolce and Gabbana, Banana Republic, Gucci, Guess, Zara, Versace, Massimo Dutti, Hermes, Fossil, Nike, Totto, Michael Kors, Levi’s, L’Occitane en Provence, Rolex, Nautical, The Gap, Bulova, Tiffany, Skechers, Pandora, Tommy Hilfiger, La Martina, Ermenegildo, Zegna, Mont Blanc, Geox, Carolina Herrera, Louboutin, Swarowski, Salvatore Ferragamo, Cartier, Charles&Keith, Roberto Cavalli, La Senza, Tissot, Mac Cosmetic, Mac Store, Yamamay, Victoria Secret, Missoni, Desigual, Hugo Boss, Armani Exchange, Calvin Klein, Givenchy, Guess, Oscar de la Renta, Versace, US Polo, The North Face, Aeropostale and others! No Kuna women are shopping here, but rich expensive-looking ladies with high hills. Us, we like window-shopping here and to check the stores for 50% and more discounts. We also come to Sport Line store in Multiplaza every month to pick up Ivo’s marathon kits.
Mercado de Abastos
Besides Albrook, where we buy cheap meat, milk, eggs and other groceries from Super99, and anything else we might need from the hardware or clothing stores, and where we sometimes go just to get cheap sandwiches or soup for lunch or to hide from the heat, the Mercado de Abastos is another place we visit on a regular basis. It is not a pretty place but a dirty, noisy, smelly, muddy, crowded place which we dearly LOVE.
We take the bus from Amador (a bus ticket anywhere in Panama City costs $0.25), get off at Teatro Balboa, and walk for about 20 min. to the largest fruits and vegetables market in town. Like Albrook, this place is massive and impressive. Here you can drive your car through the streets and get lost inside the market. Everything is sold in bulk and in smaller quantities and what is most mind-blowing is how much produce there is.
Mountains of pineapples next to mountains of watermelons, hangars filled with tomatoes, potatoes and onions, truckloads with bananas, mangoes and papaya. The abundance is unprecedented. I have never before seen so much quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables in one place.
And the prices…the first time the prices made me hold my breath like a thief in the middle of the night. Everything is one dollar. One watermelon is one dollar. Two dozens of bananas (24) are one dollar. Two small pineapples or one big one is one dollar. Two pounds (one kilo) of any type of tomatoes is one dollar, twenty lemons are one dollar…
We go every Wednesday with two huge backpacks and a twenty dollar bill and we return to the boat loaded like mules with about 40 kg (80 lb) of produce and some change in the pockets. It is fantastic. We have never eaten so much fruits and vegetables in our lives before, except maybe when we volunteered at the farmers’ markets in Florida in exchange for boxes of unsold produce.
About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:Facebook/TheLifeNomadik