Thursday, November 13, 2014


OY! Hard to believe that already more than 2 weeks have gone by here in Panama, and of course I have lots to tell about my time here. The real struggle isn't having a story to tell – but rather having time to tell it. (And getting you to read it!) I've been keeping pretty busy since I touched down on Oct. 28th and felt the massive heat wave of humidity welcome me to this tropical country. What I would have written on my first day, is drastically different than how I feel now. It’s amazing how quickly a short amount of time can change your outlook on so many things. (This blog covers my first week in the city, and I will follow it shortly with another one about my second week...)

Since I didn't want to take too many photos on first arrival and look like a total tourist, I have less photos than usual. I will nonetheless interject this monologue with random pictures taken here to make you forget how much you are (or probably aren't) reading.

But did you know geckos like to lick spilt beer off the table?
On my first adventure after getting off the plane – I decided to take the bus into town rather than hire a taxi. A taxi would have gotten me directly to where I wanted to go, but there’s no effort involved and it’s roughly 100 times more expensive (25 cents v. $20). So of course, I opted for the bus – and used the directions Lonely Planet provided which were essentially “walk across the street to the bus station.” I figured that meant I would walk across the street, and catch an obvious bus into town. What it really meant was ask 3 or 4 different people “Donde esta el autobus?” and try very hard to sort through the derechas y izquierdas (rights and lefts). I finally made it to the bus station after crossing about 4 streets and exiting through the employee entrance to the airport – but I made it. To the bus station that is, then I had to figure out which bus to get on, how I was going to pay for it, and where to get off. I figured I would ride until I got to the main bus terminal in town – which was called Albrook, and then catch a much cheaper taxi from there to the hostel. 

Thankfully the buses say where they’re going on the front. I tried to get on the first Albrook bus, but got turned away because the bus driver talked faster than I could understand and seemed to point towards the back door. I assumed he was saying something like – “get on in the back, you are blocking everyone with your humongous pack, stupid gringo.” So I went towards the back door but he didn’t open the back door – he just drove off. Lesson learned. Next time a bus came, I was more prepared. I had asked a local if he could swipe his bus card for me, since I didn’t have one and of course they don’t sell them at the airport so that the taxis can scam people. He said something like he only had one swipe left – damn. When the bus came, I hopped on anyhow and offered a dollar to the bus driver – explaining I didn’t have a card. The bus driver looked at the guy I asked, and then the guy swiped his card for me. Wasn’t sure whether to be happy or upset that he had tried to leave me stranded and sweating profusely at the bus stop. I offered him the dollar but he didn’t take it – kind man after all. 

I rode the bus for about an hour or more – clueless as to whether I was even going to Albrook after the first half an hour and countless stops. I saw the Panama City skyline approach and then I saw it fade away as we veered to the right and kept on rolling. I also saw lots of truly local scenery, and it felt great to be absorbing a new place again. After awhile, standing with my hefty pack on got tiring though. Eventually we made it to the bus terminal, where I managed to catch an overpriced $5 cab to my hostel – and happily lifted the heavy bag off my shoulders.

Hustle n bustle
A week later, I have a well-used bus card and I was able to confidently take the bus from my hostel to Albrook, which I used as a jumping off point for a variety of different excursions. Just having the card made a world of difference in my ability to function as a local, which is really what visiting a place should be about – trying to experience the true flavor of a town, even if that flavor is occasionally exhaust fumes and rank garbage on the street. I’m just happy to be out exploring again!

Bridge jumping in Baños, Ecuador - why not?
Sometimes it can be nice to share your attempt to get in touch with the local scene with other non-locals – which is exactly what I did while staying in Panama City. I booked a hostel in Casco Viejo that was highly recommended by Lonely Planet (if they told me to jump off a bridge I probably would – in fact I did, in Ecuador) and seemed like a cool place based on the description. Sure enough, it would turn out to be one of the coolest hostels I have ever stayed in. 

Before I had even checked in, a friendly guy approached me while I was waiting and mentioned that we had been on the same plane. We started chatting, and after checking in and dropping off bags, we headed out to get a bite to eat together… since we were on the same page of being starved from traveling. His name was Steve, and turns out he had also taken a bus into town – but didn’t have quite as much trouble as I did. While walking we bumped into another hostel guest, who joined us on our journey. That’s just the sort of place Luna’s is – people are generally adventurous and kind, and often traveling alone – eager to meet other cool folks along the way.

Back at the hostel I took some time to soak in the sweet ocean view from my bedroom with the city skyline punctuating the background, then joined some others downstairs to chill in the living room with some local Balboa brews. 

Hard to beat a view like this for only $16! That's the president's house next door with the flags
In that first evening alone I made many friends, and heard/shared quite a few awesome travel stories. It was great when a newcomer would ask if I was traveling with Steve or one of the other cool folks we were talking with, sort of awakens you to how quickly you can become comfortable when around the right group. After a few beers I called it a night at a reasonable hour, after all I was technically here on business and had to get up early to head to the Smithsonian office to get registered as an intern and learn more about the work I will be doing here. 

I had another interesting transit experience in the morning, this time in a taxi – not a bus. I will condense this one, since it’s only mildly entertaining, even to me. I was told to go to the Tupper Building, since the Smithsonian has many different facilities throughout Panama. But my taxi driver had no idea what Tupper meant – or where it was. Even the people at the hostel front desk were no help. So I ended up loading the map on my phone and then using that to guide the taxi driver to the building I needed. Even with the GPS in front of him he took quite a few wrong turns, so I was able to easily tell we were going farther from the destination – which was kind of humorous, but mostly annoying. When we finally got close, I saw a Smithsonian sign and told him to head there. “Ooh Smithsonian! Why didn’t you say so in the first place?!” D’uh.

My current employer
I got registered, received my Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute ID card and then waited until one of the leaders of the project, Roberto Ibañez was available to meet with me. A kind man, he offered to take me to Gamboa to see the facility there and meet some of the staff. I jumped at the opportunity, and soon we were cruising down the canal corridor heading north. In the relatively short 45 min drive, I learned a lot about the different work going on in Gamboa and got some great suggestions for things to see and do around Panama City. 

I spent the entire day in Gamboa, fumbling my way through a few Spanish conversations and mostly lending a hand with taking care of the frogs in their collection. It was a nice taste of what will be (was) upcoming at El Valle, where I’ll be (am) working. One of the staff members was celebrating a birthday – so I ate cake for lunch. Sweet!
Feliz Cumpleaños!
That evening after returning to the hostel, I relaxed and met some cool new hostel guests as well as hung out with a few of the folks I’d already met. We took advantage of the 50 cent happy hour beers available at the bar downstairs, and eventually stopped at another bar next door only to be furious at their attempt to charge $4 a beer! No way Jose. (Nah, I had one anyways – what the hell)

Hostel art work in the main chill room
The next morning I ventured out towards the Panama Canal – since I figured that’s something any visitor to Panama should probably see. This was made possible partly by the flexibility of the woman I am currently working for – Heidi Ross Griffith, who encouraged me to take some time to explore the city before coming to El Valle to work. 

So I wandered around a bunch in Casco Viejo, stubbornly determined to find the bus stop – and was eventually successful. I bought a bus card, then headed to Albrook, and took another bus to the canal from there. Each of these transits was a minor accomplishment in itself, practicing getting my point across and once again saving lots of money by avoiding a cab. The canal is huge obviously, but the part that tourists flock to is known as the Mira Flores locks – where you can watch ships pass through the locks if you’re lucky – which of course I was not. You can also tour a 4 floor museum which explained the history behind the canal, and gave fairly detailed information about how it was made. Foreigners have to pay $15 compared to the local $2 (or something like that) – which was kinda wack, but not surprising. 

Panama Canal
Although I wasn’t lucky enough to see a ship pass through the locks, they did fill up while I was there – which was cool to see. Glad I hung around to catch the contrast. The fourth floor deck offered a pretty decent vantage point of the comings and goings of the canal.

Locks filled
Once the locks filled up, I realized that I was probably wasn’t going to see a ship passing through for another hour or so (if that) and I quickly decided that waiting around was not worth being harassed by giggling middle schoolers that wanted to take photos with me. So I took advantage of a break in the rain to head back to the bus stop, and returned to town on a bus. At this point it was only 1 pm or so, and I wasn’t ready to call it a day by any means – so I caught a taxi from Albrook to an area of the city known as “The Causeway” – aka “calzada” which is a thin strip of land that connects three small islets. My destination was a Smithsonian exhibit/property that Roberto had recommended, situated on a small piece of land jutting into the sea, named Punta Culebre. One of the reasons I was keen to visit was because I had heard from multiple sources that it was a good place to see sloths. The walk in offered a cool perspective on the surrounding area – never being too far from the beach or the mountains is part of what makes this country so awesome.

Beach + Mountains = Paradise
Punta Culebre had a variety of different educational focuses, teaching people about conservation and the local wildlife from under the sea to the tops of the trees. They had an aquarium with some sea turtles and nurse sharks – and many interpreters standing by to explain more and answer any questions. I listened politely to his spiel in Spanish – understanding the bulk of it, but not everything. I asked a few simple questions about the ages of the turtles and their health, and then inquired if there were any sloths nearby that he knew of. Sure enough, he led me to a nearby clump of trees and pointed out two different ones. Guess they’re fairly easy to keep tabs on considering they sleep about 15 to 18 hours a day. Must be nice!
Slothin it
I wandered around the peninsula a bit more, taking one of the paths that weaved through a small section of forest while constantly scanning from the ground to the canopy – there are lots of places for creatures to hide in these trees! I did manage to catch an Iguana rustling about above, but soon after I took this photo – the rain started to come down pretty heavily. I found shelter from the storm in a very well designed, obviously new, exhibit on amphibians – perfect! 

Iguana chillen
The amphibian exhibit was very impressive, and I wish I had taken more photos – since exhibit designing is one of the projects I am tasked with in El Valle. Once again a nice interpreter walked me through the entire thing, pointing out the different frogs in their sneaky hiding places in each tank. I was able to understand most of what she told me, but not everything and I didn't want to dumb her talk down to my child-like level of comprehension. Always a constant question when surrounded by a different language how often you try to truly fully comprehend, and how often you just smile/nod and go with the flow. I told her I was going to work in El Valle, so she knew I was gung-ho about frogs from the beginning. They had a very impressive educational lay-out - demonstrating the transformation from tadpole to frog with on-site breeding, and a thorough section that described the effects of the chytrid fungus on amphibians. 

Strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio) on exhibit
After chatting with the interpreter a while longer and loading up on frog goodies in the gift shop – I ventured on. Instead of catching a taxi immediately, I opted to walk for a while since the causeway was a rather attractive place for a stroll, lined with palm trees and looking out over the sea.

Cruisin' the causeway

When I reached the end of the road, I hailed a taxi and headed back to the hostel. I got dinner and some beers at the brewery next door, appropriately named "La Rana Dorada" (The Golden Frog). I not only wanted to go - I kinda had to go because it was named after the frogs I'll be working with, and of course I love beer! Had a tasty pizza and enjoyed a couple different styles of beer such as a pale ale and porter that I probably won't be able to find again for a very long time.
La Rana Dorada 

Later on, that evening turned into a rather interesting adventure – instead of hanging around the bar below the hostel as we had done the past two evenings, Steve mobilized a bunch of us to an area of bars not far from the causeway that he had visited last time he was here 4 years ago.

Everyone was excited for a change of scenery, but unfortunately the $12 cover that we were asked to pay diminished our excitement greatly. We decided to forego breaking the bank, but instead of giving up, we collectively chose to venture onward. Thanks to some suave Español courtesy of our friend Juan, we found ourselves in the “poor man’s Calle Uruguay.” (Calle Uruguay being a famous night life spot within the city).

This was... interesting. We were most definitely the only white people around, and we were rolling up 2 cabs deep. Nonetheless, we went into one of the bars filled with flashing lights, super loud music, and all eyes in the place upon us. We persevered through the disconcerting atmosphere and had a beer despite sticking out like a giraffe at a cattle ranch, but at least it made for an anything-but-boring sort of evening. We high-tailed it out of there after the first beer (or 2?) and relaxed when we stepped out of the taxi and returned to the familiar turf of our hostel home.

Time to book it!
The next morning I woke up and cooked some of the free banana pancakes offered by the hostel that had become my morning staple before venturing out to explore more of the city. That day I was looking to escape the noise, smells, and hectic traffic of the city, so I headed to El Parque Metropoliano - a national park within the city boundaries. Panama City is one of the only cities in the world where you can experience rainforest within 10 minutes from downtown. Definitely didn't want to miss out on the chance to explore this gem - and my body was aching for some tropical natural goodness. So I caught a bus to Albrook again followed by a $2 cab to the park. After paying my entrance fee and getting a quick overview of the different trails available to me from the friendly staff member on duty - I headed off into the forest. 
Natural bliss
I decided I would take my time and hike the majority of the trails - since I had no other obligations and no one to meet at any particular time. That's the beauty of traveling alone - if you want to spend all afternoon in the park or just sit and watch the turtles swim around while writing postcards, you can do so - without making anyone else wait on you. After only a few minutes on the trail, I came upon a small clearing that offered a glimpse of the city skyline. It was moving to see the juxtaposition of skyscrapers from within the trees. I imagine it's the sort of image the birds and sloths have all the time, while they wonder what the hell is wrong with these people. 

Escaping it all
The hiking and exploring consumed most of the rest of the morning/early afternoon - culminating at the top of the hill with a rather spectacular view of the city from above. Aside from a group of three other chatty women, I was the only one on the trails. I didn't see a stunning amount of wildlife by any means - but I would be surprised if I had, after all everything here has spent years evolving to not be found. I did enjoy watching trails of leaf cutter ants go about their business, and managed to snag this small video of some of them crossing the path. 

At first this was a novelty, but now I've gotten quite used to seeing leaf-cutter ants all over the place - carving tiny little industrial trails through the forest. If you watch them long enough it's a great way to make yourself feel lazy. I soaked in the view for awhile and then headed back down the mountain to chill - away from the chatty ladies. 
La Ciudad de Panama
My proposed next stop, after hanging out with the turtles and sloths for a while, was Panama Viejo - but I wasn't counting on it being so far out of the way that the taxi drivers didn't care to take me there for less than $20! When an average cab is around $2 - $3, that would be highway robbery - literally. So I went back to Albrook, got a few items I needed from the adjoining mall, and then returned to Luna's to chill (notice a theme here?) and prepare for an epic Halloween party that evening. By prepare - I mean do nothing, since I hadn't banked on Halloween being such a big deal outside of the U.S., which turned out to be a rather big mistake in an area that caters to tourists. So sadly, I had no costume (other than looking like Bird-watcher for a bit...) - but the party was still absolutely epic, they really pulled out all the stops. Haven't seen a Halloween party this crazy since I went to Fantasy Fest in Key West! Around midnight they stopped the music to put on a show featuring a woman dangling from above while another guy blew fire and others juggled flaming sticks. Definitely a Halloween for the books! 

Things are heating up...
The party raged on until the wee hours of the morning - and eventually I headed up to bed to crash. Pretty convenient that this whole thing went down only a couple flights of stairs below where I was sleeping. For once, it paid to be a foreigner - since everyone who wasn't staying at Luna's had to pay $5 to get in - and the line was around the block to get in... mostly made up of locals. 

The next morning I packed up all my bags, planning to head out to El Valle that afternoon. I thought I'd give Panama Viejo one more shot, and then catch a bus out of town. I checked out of my room and then caught up w Juan, and invited him to come along. He was down, and then we bumped into Steve - who decided to join us as well. The plan was to split a taxi, but as we were walking down the stairs Juan spied 3 bike cruisers sitting in the stairwell, begging to be ridden. So plans changed a bit and we decided to take bikes there instead - one of the best decisions made all week. Luna's rented the bikes for free - so the price was right. We set out down a beautiful bike path towards our destination! 

Two wheels is the way we ride
As we would soon realize - this ride was much more than a light cruise down the bike path. It would turn into quite the adventure navigating traffic-filled streets and hilly avenues. We were checking Google maps rather regularly to be sure we were heading in the right direction (thanks Juan) and ended up biking probably close to 15 km or 10-ish miles there (due to multiple wrong turns) - all in the hot sun and generally on roads with narrow shoulders. (Carrying sunscreen would have been smart...) The bike cruisers certainly weren't designed for what we put them through, but that's part of what made it so fun! 
Juan rockin out
We kept the ocean on our right on the way there, and tried to pick a route that wasn't a main highway - although we did have to ride on a small, almost on-ramp at one point... luckily no cars were coming then thanks to a well-timed red light. We got a healthy amount of honks sent our way, but in general it seemed that drivers were fairly respectable of our choice to bike, changing lanes to give us space whenever possible. 
Not exactly our route, but a good visual of the distance
We had a blast, and eventually after 2 hours in the hot sun navigating turns and traffic lights - we arrived at our destination, Panama Viejo. This is the site of the original Panama city - founded way back in 1519, as the first European settlement along the Pacific. It was a port for shipping the gold mined in Peru back to Spain, and as a result was very full of riches and quite coveted by the surrounding buccaneers. In 1671, Captain Henry Morgan (Bet you didn't know he was a real guy!) sacked the city and took all he could with the help of his crew of rowdy pirates and burned the rest. 

Used to shoot cannons at cities, now you shoot him. Cheers!
Morgan made off with the richest booty in the Americas at the time - and left only shambles in his wake. We checked out his legacy of destruction (not talking bout the rum) by leisurely walking around the remaining ruins of the first civilization of Panama - enjoying the satisfaction of having reached our destination after such a long time in the saddle. 

The ruins varied from crumbling building foundations to a partially restored cathedral tower that you could climb up three flights of stairs to get a cool view of the surrounding area... including the striking Panama skyline. 

I enjoyed letting my imagination wander back in time to a period when this place would have been in it's prime - and the chaos that must have ensued on that fateful day when Morgan decided to take it all and then vanish back into the sea. The Spanish rebuilt with what they had left, moving their city to the area that is now Casco Viejo (Meaning: Old compound) - named for the wall that was constructed around the city to protect it from future attacks. The fact that we were staying in a hostel in Casco viejo is testament to the effectiveness of this new location. 

A restored old convent - the brick parts are what has been replaced, the stones are original
After a while of exploring, I began to realize that my opportunity to catch a bus and still arrive in El Valle during the day time was quickly disappearing. By the time we finished walking around the ruins and taking a fair amount of photos - we were starving. With taking time to eat and then having to bike all the way back, I decided I would stay one more night in the city and head to El Valle first thing on Sunday. 
An old (restored) cathedral tower measures up to the high rises
Later that afternoon back at the hostel, I checked back in - was assigned a new bed sadly, and took a much needed shower. I tried to smooth talk my way back into my old bed since I had grown rather fond of it - but turns out the hostel was entirely full, so I was out of luck. The Halloween party must have enticed lots of people to book a room there. That evening was very relaxed, since at midnight the entire city stopped selling alcohol in recognition of "El día de difuntos" - a entire day dedicated to remembering those loved ones that have been lost. 
Chao, Panama city
Sure enough, the bar below the hostel kicked everyone out a few minutes after midnight - which was a perfect excuse to head to bed. I said goodbye to the friends I had made, and left early the next morning for El Valle to begin my new life working (and living!) in a zoo. I have lots to say about that now as well, but I will save that for the next blog. Stay tuned! More to come soon. Until then, Peace Out! 

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