I woke up this morning at 4:00. After going to bed at 2:00. Even the thought of vacation didn’t do much to persuade me from our cozy bed this morning. After K threatened several times to just go on vacation without me, I reluctantly got up, finished packing, and we were on the road to my grandparents’ (our awesome volunteer airport shuttle) by 4:40.
We got to the airport around 5:30, checked in and breezed through security. We got picked for the TSA Pre-Check, which was awesome not having to take our shoes off or take anything out of our packs. And it reminded me – again – to finish our Global Entry applications when we get home so that we can have Pre-Check all the time. I’m a master procrastinator, so hopefully I’m not saying this again after our next trip.
Unfortunately, we chose to fly United for this trip, based on price and flight schedules. I was already slightly annoyed with them when we showed up at the airport. And by the time we landed in Houston for our connection I was pretty pissed. Needless to say, after this return flight, it will be a frigid day in hell before I fly their “friendly skies” again.
When I booked this flight, 5 months ago, we were supposed to leave at 6:05. Then, about a month before we left, the flight was changed to 6:40, which significantly shortened our connection time for our next flight from Houston to Panama City. Of course, there were no other options to get from here to Houston any earlier, so we had to deal with it.
Well, 6:40 came and went and we were still sitting at the gate. I relaxed a bit when the flight attendant announced that the flight would be significantly shorter than the scheduled time. But that relaxation slowly trickled away the longer we sat at the gate. I started obsessing over how many minutes we would have to make our connection, and whether there would be another flight into Panama City if we missed ours. Not a great way to start the trip.
We finally took off just before 7:00. I had a moment of calm as we popped above the clouds and a brilliant pink and orange sunrise was afire above a blanket of fluffy white clouds.
And then I tensed right back up when, only a few minutes after takeoff, the captain came on and told us that we would be flying a longer route than normal to fly around some weather. Safety first, of course, but this on top of the late departure were just making me anxious and ragey.
When we finally arrived in Houston, we had 16 minutes to get from one side of the airport to the other for our connection. We were seated in Row 14 and really nervous that we weren’t going to make it. We let the flight attendant know and she made an announcement when we landed for people to please stay in their seats to accommodate those with less than 30 minutes to connect. And guess what? When the fasten seatbelt sign went off, every single jerk in the rows ahead of us stood up and jumped out into the aisle. I know they’re not obligated, but really?! Not one single person willing to stay in their seat for 30 seconds to help a fellow traveler out?
So I stood there, audibly sighing and shifting my weight annoyedly, while the minutes ticked away as all these jerks struggled to rip their hideously oversized roller bags from the overheads and generally took their sweet ass time filing off of the plane. When we finally made it off the plane, we had 9 minutes to make our connection. We sprinted up the jetway, stopped for 5 seconds at the monitors to see that our connection had luckily been delayed 10 minutes, and took off at a dead sprint toward the tram. I squeezed in the doors of the tram just as they were closing. Literally – I had to rip my backpack through the door behind me.
We ran up to the gate just as our zone was finishing boarding. We made it! No time for a bathroom, water or breakfast. And I had a mini asthma attack at the gate. But we made it! And hoped like hell that the baggage guys had hustled as much as we did.
As we started our ascent out of Houston, I leaned against the window, closed my eyes and slept hard until we started our descent into Panama City about 3.5 hours later. There were some great views of Panama City and the canal as we descended. The first view as we dipped below the clouds was of the canal splitting the green land mass in half and the skyline of Panama City spread out in the distance.
As we passed over the canal, I started to see large ships dotting the water, I assume either just emerging from the canal, or waiting their turn to enter.
We flew for 15-20 minutes along the shoreline – past the Panama Canal, past the city skyline, past the waves crashing up on shore in front of the city – only crossing back over land just as our wheels came down for landing. We skidded and slowed on the runway under sunny, blue skies with fluffy, white clouds – encouraging to us since it’s rainy season.
Passport Control and Customs were a long and slow process. There were multiple lanes open for Panamanian citizens and few lanes open for non-citizens. They also allowed our flight crew to cut the line in front of us, which made it even slower. The Passport Control agents were some of the most unpleasant we’ve encountered in our travels. We spoke Spanish, answered all questions promptly and completely, were friendly, etc. and the guy was just terribly impolite and huffy. I’m not sure if he was sick, hungover, pissed off at work or just legitimately trying to make the experience awful for us, but it was certainly unpleasant. From Passport Control, we grabbed our bags (they made it, despite the tight connection!) and got in another long line for Customs. We handed over our declaration forms, which were just added to a stack and not inspected at all, and put all our bags through an x-ray machine which was not manned or examined by anyone. Then we were free to go. The whole process took roughly 45 minutes.
I’d read a lot about being sure to negotiate taxi fare before getting in because there is a significant difference between the “gringo fare” and the locals fare. And it’s better if you can negotiate in Spanish. At the airport, all fares were posted on a sign at the taxi stand, so it made it easy. From the airport to the Albrook area of Panama City, it was a $35 fare, and approximately 40 minutes with fairly heavy traffic.
As we pulled away from the airport and headed into a roundabout, we could see the beautiful green mountains rolling across the landscape beneath fluffy, white clouds.
As we drove closer to the downtown area, we started to pass skyscrapers. There was a clear architectural difference between the buildings in the area of the city closer to the airport and those in the modern city area. The modern area is full of Donald Trump-esque, showy towers while the others are showing their age. We inched our way along, stuck in traffic, admiring the scenery, the people and the crazy buses.
We fly out at 6am tomorrow from the Panama City Albrook Airport to Playon Chico, so we wanted to stay somewhere close to the airport. Based on TripAdvisor reviews, we chose TRYP Panama Albrook Mall – a Wyndham property. The hotel is attached to the largest mall in Latin America, so we knew we would have options for eating and anything else we might need.
The room is nice – modern decor, clean and comfy linens. The bathroom is very clean with a modern, glass/tile shower, fluffy towels and decent toiletries. For the price we paid, and the proximity to Albrook Airport, it was a pretty good choice. We’d definitely stay here again.
When we arrived, we were exhausted and starving, and ultimately decided that rumbly stomachs won out over sleep. So we headed to the mall to eat and pick up SIM cards for our phones. We walked down through the quiet, calm lobby of our hotel, and into the crowded, boisterous mall. This place was an absolute zoo! I think everyone in Central America was in this place today – adults and unsupervised children everywhere – standing around, running, sitting, walking, toddling, moseying. Just masses of people everywhere. At points it started to feel claustrophobic, as if we would be unable to peel off from the sea of people pouring through the walkways when we were ready to stop.
The mall was HUGE. There was a mix of familiar stores – Gap, Nike, Columbia, Victoria’s Secret, Tommy Hilfiger – and local stores. They also had a bowling alley, movie theater and casino. We found at least 3 food courts – all with some sort of children’s ride in them.
The first food court we came to was stuffed full of people and the majority of the places were American chains. We decided to keep walking and see if we could find something a little more Panamanian.
The second food court was just as full of American chain places – McDonald’s, KFC, Domino’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr., etc. – and a few local places. We assumed this was the best we were going to do, so we decided on eating at Rico Burrito. It’s a bit like a Latin American version of Chipotle. You go along the line and choose your burrito ingredients from several bins full of meats, cheeses, salsas, sauces, etc. It was also a good chance to practice my Spanish – I’d forgotten how many food words I know until I had to use them. I had un burrito con pollo, arroz, frijoles negros, salsa de maize, crema y picante (chicken burrito with rice, black beans, corn salsa, sour cream and picante sauce). It wasn’t as good as Chipotle, but it was pretty good. And definitely hit the spot after not having eaten all day.
The food court area was packed full. Really, that is an understatement. Every single table was full, and there were people sitting on the floors and standing around tables. We were lucky that after a couple of minutes walking around, we happened to walk past a table just as people were getting up and were able to swoop in and sit before anyone else could. We had seats right in front of the giant carousel in the food court, and it was entertaining me to watch all of the kids riding – it’s funny how something so simple can make kids so happy.
It struck me as I sat there watching how different this place is from malls in the U.S. Here, children were running and wandering around the food court area unsupervised – I’m talking small children, too, probably 2 years old or so. There didn’t seem to be any concern for safety or fear of kidnapping or any of the paralyzing fears we have become so accustomed to with children in public places in the States. Despite having to watch for children underfoot everywhere, it was so freeing to me to see that there is still a place where childhood fun has not been squelched by fears of predators.
As we walked back, the cellular kiosks were all packed. With food in my belly, I was feeling deliriously tired and pretty sure that if I stopped and waited at a kiosk I would fall asleep on my feet. After a bit of debate, we decided to take our chances with no SIM cards and rely on using What’s App and Skype on WiFi if we need to communicate with anyone and headed back to the room to sleep. I asked K to set an alarm for 6:00, and I think I was asleep before I finished my sentence.
I woke with a start at 9:00, wondering why K hadn’t set the alarm. Apparently he did and couldn’t wake me – a testament to how exhausted I was. I didn’t want to waste the rest of the night holed up in our room, but we have to be up super early again tomorrow, so we headed down to the bar in the lobby.
Our first stop was at the taxi stand outside to set up a taxi to the airport for tomorrow morning. Our flight leaves at 6am, so they suggested we leave at 5:00. Ugh. Anyway, we got the taxi set up and I spoke the entire conversation in Spanish – probably at a 3rd grade grammar level – but I did it!
We sat down at the bar and tried our first Panamanian beer – Balboa – while we watched a mix of American football and soccer on the TVs. I was a little surprised that it’s a Saturday night and we were the only people in the bar, but we were getting exclusive service, so who cares?!
After a couple of beers we decided we were both a little hungry, so we ordered salmon tartare and flan to share. Not the best combination of foods to eat together, I guess – especially with beer – but they were both good. The service was exceptionally slow, but the food was decent for hotel food.
After a few beers, we came back upstairs, showered, packed up and climbed in bed to watch TV. Now it’s time for bed. 4am is going to come very early again.