My final night in Havana I stayed in a beautiful colonial house in Centro Habana called ‘Gloria’s’
but most of my interaction was with a woman called Lina who worked there. She was about 60 and so sweet. She popped back into my room to say something once I’d unpacked a couple of bits and embarrassingly she spotted my teddy, Garfield, on the bed. She immediately took a shine to him, asking his name and saying “so you are not staying alone!”, then when I set off into the old town for the afternoon she asked me “where’s Garfie…?”, so even more embarrassingly I think she assumed I take him literally everywhere with me!! I told her that he was in the room and she said “ahh, he’s tired!” 🙂 Then when I set off the next day for the airport she checked again that I had him with me, I reassured her that he was in my hand luggage..along with passport and most valued possessions!!
I tried the La Cochina restaurant which was actually really cool, in an Old Chimney in the Verdado district (on Calle 26, between Calle 13 and 15) but I was the most conscious I’ve been of eating alone there, perhaps because I was a bit more upmarket! At the table next to me was a group of about 10 people who I really couldn’t work out the dynamic of, in the end I concluded they were probably colleagues but in what I wasn’t sure. The only clue I got was overhearing a camp Mancunian guy in the group saying “last time I was in the Caribbean I was in Antigua at Nicole’s for judges houses”….so perhaps they worked in TV, unless he was an ex-X contestant, faded into obscurity.
The next morning I set off early for the airport. The departures at Havana airport were just as organised as the rest of my experiences in Cuba… I got to the airport to see that I needed to check-in to my flight in ‘Hall A’, with absolutely no indication of where Hall A was! The arrival to Panama’s international airport was not much better, never have I been to an airport where you get off the flight and there are zero, absolutely zero signs to an exit or passport control or baggage. Everyone was wandering around aimlessly, slightly frustrating when all you want to do is get your bag and get out!
The views on the flight were wonderful though, we flew over various uninhibited Caribbean islands and amazing swamp-looking-things! Then there was a great view of the skyscrapers of Panama City as we came into land and all the cargo boats waiting to pass through the canal.
It was a huge contrast to Cuba. I think perhaps because Cuba was the first place I went on the trip, I sort of forgot my previous travelling experiences and didn’t quite register how unique it was. Within minutes of landing in Panama City I was bombarded with shops and brands, even the advert on the plane showing ‘tourist joe’ going to Albrook Mall to do his holiday shopping. The difference highlighted exactly how special Cuba had been, despite its difficulties.
I was however very happy to be able to finally use my dollars and not have to worry about becoming stranded and penniless! I got a taxi into town from the airport and it took about 2 hours, the traffic was dreadful! My taxi driver really was not keen on me at first…we set off, and he didn’t do up his seatbelt, so what started as a slow ‘beep. beep.’ rapidly progressed over a minute or so to ‘BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP’ which genuinely did not seem to bother him. Given my limited Spanish, and pretending to be concerned to hide my frustration, I tapped him, did a concerned face and said “BEEP BEEP BEEP it’s okay?” he looked peeved and begrudgingly plugged the seatbelt in. He then asked me to pay now, but in Spanish, so I thought he was asking for the address (most reasonable considering we’d been driving 5 minutes, why would I pay en route?) but no, he got progressively more frustrated as I kept saying the address in slightly differing intonations and then finally shouted “No. You pay now? I need gas”. “Ohhhhhh”.
The final incidents occurred when a) he suddenly for no apparent reason turned the music up from volume 12 to 30 (max!), so again I tapped him and asked him to turn it down (remember I was paying for this ‘service’) and then when he got onto the motorway, saw that it was solid traffic, and so proceeded to reverse up the slip road. Needless to say relations were frosty in the car.
We eventually bonded when it became apparent there had been some big accident, and therefore given the traffic we were going to be in the car together another good hour at least. He picked up his 13 year old son en route and by the end we were having a hoot. (Well, they were laughing at me for saying the traffic was “Loco!!”)
I arrived at the AirBnB apartment to be greeted by the hosts Zil and Davide and their adorable little 2 month old labrador puppy ‘Willie’. Dermot wasn’t arriving until late the following night so I spent the afternoon exploring the area we were staying in.
Casco Viejo is a really beautiful area. It’s tiny, only 11 streets long until you get to the ghetto of El Chorillo where you are not meant to venture. Only 5 years ago Casco Viejo was apparently a really troubled area, after 6pm the police would clear out and it was completely full of crime and gang violence. However, it had previously been made a unesco world heritage site, and because of this the area has been cleaned up by police, so that it’s now one of the safest areas for tourists in the city (I felt 100% fine all the time!) and meaning there is now huge real estate investment there. In part it reminded me of Havana, with shells of beautiful colonial buildings, all collapsed inside. The difference being that Casco Viejo was so evidently being re-developed. Every second building was a building site, or marked for development as apartments or a hotel, and every few steps you had to avoid a gaping hole in the pavement (honestly 3ft deep!) I can’t wait to see what it looks like in a few years, I think it will be beautiful (although probably more touristy!)
My first evening I popped into a restaurant that was recommended by Zil and Davide Manolo It turned out that they only did a tasting menu, so I ended up having a 7 course feast solo. It was a really cool place, and delicious menu, it just reinforced that eating is a very sociable activity, and shouldn’t be done alone where avoidable, especially for 7 courses. It cost about $45 all in (no alcohol) and Zil said that this was “really cheap”, which made me slightly concerned for what Panama held in store!
The next day I went to the famed Mercado de Mariscos, the city seafood market. It is closed every 3rd Monday of the month for ‘fumigation’ so I was worried dermot and I would miss it. It was a 10 minute walk from Casco Viejo, and as people had said the location was obvious from the vulture-like birds circling above! What wasn’t so obvious however was the actual market entrance. I spent about 15 minutes trudging around back alleys in fish guts and ice, wondering what all the fuss was about and which of these surly looking guys I could ask for a pot of ceviche, when I stumbled across the ‘official’ entrance around the corner and realised I’d been strolling in the wings rather than the main stage! I bought a delicious Ceviche Mixto for $2.50 and found a spot of shade under a palm tree on the waterfront to eat it.
Dermot’s flight wasn’t scheduled to land until about 10pm that evening, so I planned for another solo dining experience. Zil and Davide (a chef) suggested a restaurant called Clementine nearby. En route to clementine I walked past a bar called Tantalo which was advertising a rooftop bar. Now I’m a sucker for a good rooftop bar, and in the lift up I got chatting to a couple of guys: Carlos (Columbian) and Fredric (French). We ended up having a sundowner or four on the rooftop, and they filled me in on the city. Carlos worked for a Panamanian TV channel and Fred was a property developer in Casco Viejo. They were such fun! About an hour in Fred announced “we’re gay by the way, but not with each other“….the former I’d deduced in the 20 second lift up to the roof 😂 Carlos tried to persuade me to go “out out” with them, but I reminded them I was waiting on Dermot’s arrival. They then joined me downstairs at Tantalo for dinner and then we went our separate ways. Me to await Dermot’s arrival.
I allowed him no time/sympathy for jet lag and planned a busy first day including a visit to the Panama Canal. He suggested he’d like a massage to relieve the ‘I’ve spent 12 hours on a plane’ posture so we spoke to Zil and then hopped in a taxi to Chinatown (El Dorado mall). Given my bubblegum pink ‘holiday shellacs’ that I’d had done a month or so ago were wearing off I thought we could have a combined health and beauty outing. Unfortunately, nowhere in Chinatown seemed to have space for massages, or to have any concept of shellac. We ended up almost abandoning the mission until we came across a little shop opposite the main mall who offered gel pedicures. Dermot then snoozed for an hour whilst I, and my toes, were the fascination of 5 beauticians.
We found a fantastic little Chinese place for lunch called La Reina (the queen) where they served mouthwatering gyoza and cloud buns! We had 6 servings for $16 = happy Caitlin!
We then headed to the main attraction, the canal!! The Panama Canal has 3 sets of locks, and we headed to Miraflores, about 15 minutes outside of the city. There you can see ships passing through the locks, accompanied by a very excited (and informative!) commentator. So it takes ships roughly 8-10 hours to pass through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If instead they opted to go around South America it would take about 2 weeks instead! The highest toll paid to pass through the canal was c $400,000 and the lowest was 36cents by a swimmer! We saw 2 “PANAMAX” boats pass through. This is the name given to the liners that can just squeeeeze through the canal. These had 24 inches leeway on each side, not much considering the locks are 110ft wide. The canal is currently undergoing an expansion so that even biggert “PANA-SUPER-DUPER-MAX” boats can pass through. Apparently boats around the world are designed with the Panama Canal in mind. At least that avoids the awkwardness when the French built the trains too big for the platforms!
That evening we headed to the Hard Rock hotel sky bar, on the 62nd floor of the hotel with spectacular views over the city. What was amusing was Dermot and my attempts to get to the 62nd floor. We ended up in the guest lifts, which don’t go to the bar, and once you’re inside can only be activated with a key card. So we spent about 5 minutes (a long time in lift time!!) helplessly shooting up and down the building, without the doors actually opening at the floors. I was just starting to get nervous lift-sweats when we were released on the ground floor. Sheepishly we found the correct lift and were quickly enjoying some cocktails. We then went for dinner at a delicious Peruvian-Panamanian fusion restaurant Mar de Grau with our AirBnB hosts and a couple from NYC who had stayed with them the weekend before and got engaged in Bocas Del Toros during the week. He proposed in a kayak in dolphin bay at dawn, with a dolphin delivering the ring (okay maybe not quite but it all sounded super romantic) and we had a fantastic evening with lots of Pisco Sours and giant portions!
Our final day in Panama City we hired bikes from Casco Bikes a recently opened outfit by a friendly Czech, Peter, and rode along the wonderful Cinta Costera cycle path. This is a causeway through the ocean with a wide bike and pedestrian section that’s totally separated from the main road by a high fence covered in beautiful flowers. It was packed at the weekend but on Tuesday we had it virtually to ourselves! We rode the whole way along the seafront to the financial district. I really liked Panama City and it really had the feel of somewhere ‘on the up’ with huge potential!
We undid any potential health benefits of the cycle with huge delicious pizzas at Cafe Per Due in the old town near our flat. Topped off with a (third!!) ice-cream from Granclement the following morning and we were ready to hop on our internal flight to Bocas Del Toros and the beach!!