Life Nomadic: Fifteen Essential Tips for Panama

Only a week remains in my two month stay in Panama, so I thought it would be useful to condense everything I’ve learned here to make it easier for future travelers.

Panama City is one of my favorite places in the world. It’s a perfect blend of “frontier spirit”, as Todd calls it, comfortable city life, good prices, and nearby cities and towns to explore. In list form, here are my recommendations for Panama:

1. When in Panama City, check out Casco Viejo before you decide on a place to stay. It’s a two dollar cab ride from anything in the city and it feels like a totally different country. Manolo Caracol, located in Casco Viejo, is considered to be the best restaurant in Panama, despite only costing $20 for the prix fixe menu.

2. The best place to go outside of Panama City is Boquete. The weather is cool, there’s tons to do, and it’s the total opposite of Panama City – perfect for a break.

3. Grocery shopping in Panama City is excellent. El Rey, Super 99, and Riba Smith are the main grocery stores. Riba Smith has the best selection of healthy foods and American and European imports. Organica, located in Paitilla, is an expensive store that has even more health food imports.

4. Don’t try to live in Paitilla or Pacifica. These are the the super gringo areas, which sounds like a good thing but isn’t. Cangrejo, Marbella, Bella Vista, and Obarrio are the best areas downtown. I personally wouldn’t want to stay anywhere farther out, except for Casco Viejo from #1.

5. Don’t pick up Taxis in front of hotels or malls. Walk down the street. If you ask the price, they know they can rip you off. If they try to barter the price up front, they’re trying to rip you off. Get in the car, and pay $2 for the ride as long as it’s within downtown.

6. Try patacones. They’re delicious fried plantain chips.
7. The only coffee shop with wifi is NY Bagel near “cabeza de Einstein” on Via Argentina. There are a few internet cafes that have wifi for .50-.75 per hour. The one at Via España and Via Argentina has really fast internet (for Panama).

8. When you arrive at the airport, go upstairs to the departure gate dropoff area. The taxis there will charge you less than the ones downstairs. Shoot for $15, negotiate up front.

9. Rental cars are only around $20 a day, which makes them great for road trips. Thrifty on Via España is a good place to go.

10. Finding good apartments is very difficult. Craigslist and VRBO are good places to start, but they are expensive. I rented a room from Michael (lirpa1966 at E-mail him and he may have something for you too. Just don’t book my room next winter!

11. The hostels in Panama City are pretty bad. I’ve stayed at a few and wouldn’t recommend them. Casa De Carmen is somewhere between a hostel a hotel. Great place, decent location, and decent prices.

12. Bocas Del Toro is probably not worth visiting unless you’re really into surfing. If you are into surfing, it’s a must do.

13. If you like beaches, go to the San Blas Islands. Any hostel will get you in touch with the right people to make it happen. It’s real remote island living with real indians. Highly recommended.

14. If you are a vegetarian, you MUST go to Casa Vegetariana next to Manolos near Casa Veneto. You will eat there every day. For special occasions, check out La Novena across from Happy Copy on Via Argentina. Arturo will take care of you!

15. It is possible to swim in both oceans in one day. We did it in 89.5 minutes, ocean to ocean. Can you beat us?

Panama is one of the first places I’d recommend to anyone. Consider visiting, and use these tips to make your trip even better.

Cockpit Chronicles: Taken for a ride in Panama City

I called my friend Captain Dave the day before our trip.

“Dave, we’re going to hit the ground running in Panama City so we can check out the canal. I’ve got it all figured out. Just get to bed early,” I said.

Dave was up for this. He actually traded one of his Barbados layovers to fly this trip with me. Sometimes it’s worth it to fly an ugly trip with a good friend. We’ve been flying together for about five years and we always have a good time discussing current events and hanging out on layovers.

I studied up on the Wikitravel Panama City entry and figured we could get a taxi over to the Miraflores Locks where there was supposed to be a decent restaurant overlooking the canal.

When I met up with Dave in operations, he had quite the story to tell. He went to bed the night before at 7 p.m. and, you guessed it, woke up at about 10 p.m. After tossing and turning a while longer, he figured he might as well come into work a few minutes earlier than normal for what he thought was a 5:30 a.m. departure. It wasn’t until he arrived at the Boston airport that he realized the flight departed at 6:45 a.m. He was almost three hours early. He tried to nap on a recliner in the crew lounge, but I imagine it’s hard to get much sleep when you’re kicking yourself all the time.

%Gallery-17310%I showed up on time and relatively well rested. I have to give credit to Dave. He was as determined to see the canal as I was, even after what would be a long day of flying. We left on time from Boston to Miami and continued on to Panama City just an hour later. Flying south to Panama took us directly over Cuba, which has excellent controllers, then through Jamaica’s airspace before finally talking to Panama control.

We landed in Panama City at 2 p.m. and made it to the hotel an hour later. Surprisingly, Dave was still willing to take the trip to the canal. We changed clothes and checked with the concierge about getting a cab to the locks. The Wikitravel entry mentioned a flat rate of $25 if you want to hire the cab for the entire day. The concierge spent a few minutes talking to a cab driver before deciding that we’d be better off with a private taxi since the cabby couldn’t speak much English.

Louis was probably close to eighty years old and he looked harmless enough. We hopped in the car and he drove about 50 feet before he turned to us and said, “No drugs!”

“What’s that?” I said, while sitting in the front seat.

“No drugs. I can take you anywhere you’d like, show you anything, just nooo drugs.” He said.

I know we’d been awake for close to 14 hours at this point, but how bad did we look?

“We’d just like to go to the Miraflores Locks for dinner.” I told Louis.

Louis said he’d be willing to do that, but he could also take us to Casco Viejo and some other interesting locations as well. And for all that, the total would be $80 for the day.

Now here’s a tip. Don’t get INTO a taxi until you have the price negotiated. Since we were already in the cab, our negotiating leverage was pretty much nil.

“$40 a person, OK, fine, I suppose.” This better be one heck of a tour, I thought.

Louis drove us toward the locks and explained that it was a great way to see the canal. Had we gone to the observation deck, it would cost $16. But if we went to the restaurant, we could eat at a buffet for $21. That worked for us. I was happy to save some money after agreeing to pay for Louis’s car payment for the month.
The traffic northbound out of the city was really slow going. It was the Friday before Mardi Gras and the celebrations were just starting, which meant a main road was closed in the city. Our drive took about 45 minutes, but Louis did his best to give us some of the details of his city. But it was hard to hear all the stories over the snoring that Dave was doing in the back seat.

Dave hasn’t stopped nagging me about the time I took him on a packed subway so we could find my favorite bathroom in Paris, so I knew I’d be hearing about this extravagant cab ride for many months to come.

We made it to the Miraflores Locks, which are the last locks before the Pacific Ocean. After climbing a few flights of stairs, we picked up some free passes that would get us past the guards to the restaurant. It was 5:30 p.m. when we sat down for dinner by ourselves on the balcony overlooking the locks. The view was spectacular and we soon realized that we needed to stay there for a full dinner, even if we had to miss out on touring any other parts of Panama City.

In order to see how the canal works, take a look at this 30 second animation showing the entire canal, and then this one that illustrates the way a lock operates.

Any visit to the canal wouldn’t be complete without a few mind-blowing facts about what some call the eighth wonder of the world:

  • 27,000 workers died during the construction.
  • On a New York to San Francisco trip, the canal saves 7800 miles.

  • Each canal door needs to be replaced every ten years and weighs 750 tons (the same as 12 Boeing 757’s).
  • Ships are prioritized by a bidding system. The more you’re willing to pay, the sooner you can enter the canal.
  • The canal averages 40 ships per day or 14,000 a year.
  • A typical passage by a cargo ship takes 9 hours to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Crossings cost as little as $650 for a sailboat to $141,000 for a cruise ship.

Dave and I watched three or four huge ships pass through during our two-hour dinner there. I’ve included a gallery showing the view from the restaurant as well as some aerial shots of the canal I took when we passed overhead earlier in the day.


The buffet dinner couldn’t have been better and we enjoyed the local Balboa beer as well. Every country we fly to in the Caribbean and Central America seems to have their own beer and surprisingly they all taste exactly the same. I’m not complaining as I do like them all, but I can’t tell the difference.

Louis came up twice to check on us; probably to be sure we weren’t skipping out on his taxi bill, but also to let us know that we were going to miss seeing the other parts of town. We knew we’d be back, and we had found the perfect place to eat and enjoy the monumental view.

The drive back to the hotel took an hour because of the traffic. I marveled at all the construction and found a few open wi-fi spots with my iPhone as we crept through the city. Dave slept in the backseat. Fortunately we didn’t have to leave for another eighteen hours, so he could catch up on a lot of sleep back at the hotel.

The next day we flew to Miami and then on to Caracas, Venezuela where we laid over for sixteen hours. The rest of the trip was uneventful, but I did manage to get some nice shots of the sun going down on the way from Caracas to Miami.

One of the benefits of this job has been the ability to travel to some interesting places that I might have otherwise missed. If you don’t think you’ll ever make it to Panama, at least you can check out this webcam from the top of the building where we had dinner. It’s the next best thing. If that’s too slow for you, take a look at this almost hypnotic video below of a week’s worth of traffic through the Miraflores Locks compressed down to a few minutes.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.

Cockpit Chronicles – Riots in Panama

I’ve flown with Captain Jim on the MD-80, the 737 and the 757/767. It’s always a pleasure to work with him and we often discuss everything from politics to aviation — but lately he’s also become my mentor in photography. Jim has been trying to expand my interest in shooting in the manual mode on my Canon DSLR. I tend to spend more time with the angles and composition than the exposure and white balance of my photos. But whenever I’m on a trip with Jim, he brings along his gear and shows me how it should really be done.

I’ve run into him a few times this month and we’ve talked about trying to get a Panama City, Panama and Caracas, Venezuela trip together so we could visit Casca Viejo in Panama. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and perfect for a day of photography. Through some trip trading, I was able to get on one of these three-day trips with him.

As you’ll see after the jump, it didn’t go exactly as we’d hoped.


The first day we left at 6 a.m. for a flight to Miami and then on to Panama City, Panama. It’s strange to head due south out of Miami and eventually get to the Pacific Ocean side of Panama.

The ride to Miami had some moderate turbulence that caused one of our breakfast trays to fall from it’s perch on the jumpseat and land on the floor, breaking the glass bowl and plate. These bumps are certainly annoying, but as we explain to nervous passengers, as long as you keep your seatbelt fastened when instructed and anytime you’re seated you’ll be fine.

Jim lugged his camera and three lenses and I brought my still cameras and the HD video camera. You would have thought we were headed out on an African safari.

I told him about the protests that were happening this week in Panama City. On the 14th of February, a riot involving construction workers upset with the working conditions broke out right next to the hotel where we are staying. Panama City is going through an amazing construction boom; It seems like half of the city’s skyscrapers are under construction. There are cranes everywhere and it seems the workers are being pushed to their limits.

One worker was shot and killed during this demonstration which resulted in yet another riot the next day — again at our hotel. Unfortunately, I wasn’t flying one of those trips or I would certainly have video for you to see. But I did find this video that someone took from our hotel.

I figured that we might get some pictures of the demonstration’s aftermath, but if we didn’t see anything there, we had planned on going to another area that was in the news this week: Casca Viejo.

The newest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, is being filmed in Casca Viejo, near the presidential palace. In fact, my co-pilot friend Rich had Judy Dench on board from Panama City to Miami just a few days ago.

According to the British tabloid, Daily Mail, they’ve been having a terrible time with items being stolen from the production team during the making of this movie. So apparently the producers hired a gang for security while filming. The rival gang in town didn’t appreciate this, so things got pretty ugly this past week. There was even talk about the production leaving town and rewriting the script to shoot in another country. But according to the comments on the article at our sister-site, the Daily Mail has blown the story out of proportion, since they’re confusing the construction worker shooting with this filming which is located a few miles away.


Our approach into Panama took us right over the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. It’s amazing to see all the ships lined up to enter the canal. It’s easy to see why this is considered one of the man-made wonders of the world.

The best laid plans…

After our arrival in Panama City, we talked to the outbound crew (also from Boston) at the gate. They tell us that because of the unrest near our hotel, we were now staying near the airport: a good 45-minute drive from the city. Our big photo opportunity was lost. I thought for a moment about getting a cab to go into the city, but I figured that would be kind of reckless considering that our company had gone out of its way to keep us out of the area. (It wouldn’t have stopped me! You gotta bite the bullet – sometimes literally – for interesting photo opportunities)

We met up at a bar similar to something you might see at a Denny’s restaurant back home. After I ordered, Mark, a British guy next to us asked me if I had just ordered the fajitas. He was disappointed that he hadn’t seen the fajitas before he ordered a few minutes earlier.

We struck up a conversation with Mark, who had just sailed a Catamaran across the Atlantic, stopping in St. Lucia, Aruba and some other places before coming through the Panama Canal the day before. He’s been writing about the trip (his fourth or fifth time across the Atlantic) in a great blog that he’s able to update using an Iridium satellite phone. Mark’s semi-retired, even though he’s in his early forties. It turns out he’s a Mac user as well. He started, a training video service where you can learn anything from Photoshop CS to web and flash design for a flat fee of $30 a month. As a way to give something back, his company has created a huge library of free video content for teenage students wanting to improve their math or science skills called They’ve even got courses on photography as well.

The best part about traveling is the people you come across along the way, and while Jim and I are still bummed that we hauled all of our gear on this trip without getting a chance to use it, we had such a great time chatting with Mark that I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.


The next day we flew from Panama City back to Miami, and then Caracas, Venezuela. Interestingly, many people are doing just the opposite this month: fleeing Caracas to Panama City. Caracas hasn’t been a very safe place for some time according to the State Department’s travel safety site. Here’s my favorite part of the warnings:

Violent crime in Venezuela is pervasive, both in the capital, Caracas, and in the interior. The country has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world. Armed robberies take place in broad daylight throughout the city, including areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists. A common technique is to choke the victim into unconsciousness and then rob them of all they are carrying. Well-armed criminal gangs operate with impunity, often setting up fake police checkpoints. Kidnapping is a particularly serious problem, with more than 1,000 reported during the past year alone. According to press reports at least 45 foreigners have been kidnapped in the first eight months of 2007. Investigation of all crime is haphazard and ineffective. In the case of high-profile killings, the authorities quickly round up suspects, but rarely produce evidence linking these individuals to the crime. Only a very small percentage of criminals are tried and convicted.

So I just stayed at the hotel. I did manage, however, to get out to the pool.

Landing Slump

I’ve been on a bit of a landing slump lately. These usually happen after a streak of great landings where you think you’ve got it all figured out. There’s no stopping you. And then you hit a slump. Instructors like to say that a good approach will lead to a good landing, but that’s just not so. There’s so much going on in the flare and I’m convinced that what you did in the approach has very little to do with how you’ll touch down as long as you’re at least on speed and on the glide path when you cross over the runway. Is there a crosswind? Maybe a slight tailwind? Is the runway sloping down? How’s your speed? Your sink rate? Did you start the flare too early or too late? Are you on the centerline? Are you trying to make a turn-off to the terminal that effectively shortens your runway? Does the airplane have winglets?

My landing last night in Caracas wasn’t that great. You see, runway 10 slopes upwards for the fist 1200 feet or so and then starts to angle back down. The key to a nice landing is to touchdown before the runway starts to head away from you. If you miss the ‘bump’, it’s far less likely that you’ll get a smooth touchdown. Manchester, England is the same way.

After three landings only a mother could love, I’m declaring this an official landing slump. I’ll let you know when I have it figured out again. It doesn’t help that I’ve been flying with a few captains lately who must be on their own good landing streaks.

Jim let me use his wide-angle lens again so I took a few cockpit shots. It’s always nice to find creative angles and this lens gives me a few more chances at a good shot. Here’s what I came up with:



The icing on the cake of this trip was saved for the last leg, our sixth in three days. The lunar eclipse was starting just as I did the walkaround inspection in Miami and it finished just as we started the approach into Boston. I managed to get a bit of video and some pictures of it, but there’s no way to capture the feeling of breaking out of the clouds and seeing the eclipse right in front of you. A few pilots commented to the air traffic controllers just how amazing the view was. It seemed a bit cruel to the controllers since Miami was under mostly cloudy skies. I managed to shoot a little video clip of the day’s flying:

Next month I will be going down for recurrent training in the simulator and classroom and I hope to bring you along for the ride.

How many condos does Panama City need?

One of the things that surprised me the most about my trip to Panama is the amount of development going up in Panama City, Panama. There are literally dozens of highrises going up right now, in addition to the dozens that are already there. Panama is a fairly small city, about 600-800 thousand residents, based on different estimates. Yet, judging by the skyline, you would think that this is a multi-million resident metropolis.

I have talked to a few people about this and they thought the development had to do with a) rise in tourism, b) banking, and c) planned expansion of the Panama Canal. Still, I don’t understand why the need for thousands of condo units. Even Donald Trump has been developing here. Well, gambling and prostitution are legal here. Is this going to be the Vegas of Latin America?

Photo of the Day (11/26/07)

Since I am in Panama now, here is a picture I took a few days ago in cloudy Panama City (it’s the end of the rainy season). This is my first time in Panama and I am blown away by the amount of construction going on in this city. The obsession with highrises reminds me of Shanghai; so do the slums with the view of the “good life.”

***To have your photo considered for the Gadling Photo of the Day, go over to the Gadling Flickr site and post it.***