A Belle in Panama: The First 24.

Panama City (2012) Image courtesy of skift.com It took me 12 hours to get to Panama. I'd planned for 8.

Actually it took me 6 days and 12 hours.

Let me explain.I was supposed to leave for Panama on July 10, the day after my birthday. I bailed on the latter half of my surprise party to get home early because I had a 6AM flight and had to finish the last bit of packing and you know, actually sleep.

So I did that. And I went to sleep intending to wake up at 3:45 and/ or 4 AM to head to the airport. But I woke up at 4:45 and there was no way I could make it to the airport in time to board my flight. So I call the airline to say "hey, I need a later flight" and the woman on the end of the line is like, "no, you need a flight". I don't understand the distinction until she explains that despite putting in all my credit card deets and pushing "purchase" my flight had only been reserved, not bought. So even if I woke up on time and made it to the airport on time, I wasn't going to Panama, at least not on the flight I thought I had booked.

So I tried to buy a ticket on the next flight, until she told me it was $1400 total. Um... I don't pay that to go to South Africa. The way I set my trip up, 5 days in the city, 5 at a resort, it made more sense to just wait, fly in Tuesday, go to the city first, then the resort and call life, well, life. And it was only $50 more than the ticket I paid for.

On Tuesday, I get a call at 3 AM that my flight is delayed by an hour. Great. And I mean that. I used the extra hour of sleep. The plane  leaves on time for the new time, but there's a layover in Miami that leaves an hour late, then sits on the runway for 90 minutes because of a storm, then, when finally arriving in Panama, sits at some obscure gate for 30 minutes because no buses are available to pick us up and take us to the main gate.

The woman sitting in the aisle seat across from me (a grandmother from Panama who is taking her two children and five grands to Panama for the first time) uses the down time to make small talk. " I watch you on 'that show'," she says. "Is it coming back for a second season?"

It is. Am I? Uhhhhhh....

But I made it here. And I'm not complaining at all because Panama is f***in awesome.


The drive from the airport was uneventful until I saw the Panama City skyline which looks like more like the pics I've seen of Dubai than Miami which I've actually seen several times and what everyone always compares Panama too.  What is does look like for certain is way better than the pics online.

So does my hotel. After a long mental back and forth where I couldn't figure out if I wanted to stay at the 5- star Trump (the views are sick) or a boutique (pool-less) hotel in the "cute" side of town (Casco Viejo), I choose cute. The cute place also happens to be a HUGE room and have a balcony, which was oddly not mentioned on the site. Weird.  In the morning, I'll pull a chair in my room out there so I have something to sit on while I write

Anyway, after I settle in, I grab dinner on a rooftop bar, then I go for what's supposed to be a brief walk. I recall my travel book (more on that later) saying the area isn't safe, so I avoid dark streets and stick to where large groups were crossing and well-lit areas. That logic took me by some really cute resties that I MUST eat at before I go and the waterfront with great views of the skyline and Casco Viejo.  I walked around for an hour-plus taking pics and taking in the views and sights.

Day 2

My Spanish sucks. I took 3-4 years of it in high school and you'd think that would make me fluent. Um, I can read it well enough, but speak or better, reinterpret into English what people speaking Spanish to me are saying quickly enough to actually converse? Not so much. This is especially problematic as I'm making a rather conscious decision not to do total tourist ish. I'm relying on hand signals and minimal words -"comida?" "mall?" "taxi?" - to get by, which is surprisingly effective. My Panamanian friend who told me everyone in Panama speaks English, lied.

I bought a guide book about Panama so I would know where to go. It's 120 pages. The writer recommends the same 10 places over and over and from what I can tell misses all the good ish. Get this: the place I was posting all those pics from on Wednesday? Casco Viejo? The book doesn't mention it more than to say it's an unsafe area, should be avoided at all costs, and it's a bunch of old rocks so it can be skipped? Um, really? One of the oldest churches in the Western Hemisphere is skippable? Later, a friend points out that it may be an old guide book. Casco Viejo didn't look this way just 2 years ago. That, and tour guides are made for middle-aged white people who walk around with Nikon cameras hanging from their necks. If you can manage to use just a lil bit of sense, he says, you'll be fine.

The upside of the book is the author kept saying over and over how cheap taxis are in Panama City. Like dirt cheap. So I leave my hotel, looking for one to go to the good mall because I forgot to pack draws. (I'm wearing swimsuit bottoms as undies. It was that or go commando on a humid, 85 degree day. Um... No.) Anyway, the first cab that stops charges $20 to go to the Mulitiplaza. I say, "no way." The next one that stops charges me.... $3.  Oh, and I do mean $3 as in US currency. Panama's official currency is the American dollar. Go figure.

The book saved me $17 already, which was the cost of the travel guide, so we'll call it even... almost.

The book also says to avoid a place called Colon. Literally, it says Colon is dangerous and there's nothing remotely that would be interesting to tourists. How about from what I can gather, Colon is the "black part" of the Panama. My (Black) friend who lives here described it as a "sleepy Black town" with pretty views. Colon is also the bus connection to get to Portobelo, which happens to have Nazareno of Portobelo aka the Black Christ, which I am all about and the book never once mentioned. Like, if I see NOTHING else this trip, I want to see a historical life- size statue of Black Jesus that Black folks in Panama have been praising for 354 years.

Apparently  once a year for the last THREE CENTURIES  there are folks who WALK  50+ miles from Panama City to Colon to honor Black Christ on October 21st. There are also folks who crawl the last mile as penance. We can't get even most American Black churches to put a Black Jesus on the wall in 2014, but there are Black Panamanians who  have been celebrating one since the 17th century and CRAWLING to get to him?!
I NEED to see this biblically accurate Jesus with skin like bronze and hair like lamb's wool for myself. And apparently there are TWO of them. Not one, but two!!! There's another Black Jesus in the water off Isla Grande nailed to the cross. Seeing both of these are God's plan for me.

Black Jesus at Isla Grande

But figuring out how to get to Portobelo SAFELY is tricky without, you know, speaking thorough Spanish or spending hundreds on a driver. But it might be worthwhile. Stay tuned. I WILL make this happen.