Sorry, I had to get that out of the way. If you’re still with me, I’d like to tell you about my two wild weeks on the great isthmus of Panama. It’s hard not to start with the worst part, as it explains why I have only a handful of not-so-great photos.
My friend G and I decided back in November, over a bottle of wine, to take a trip somewhere outside the country. It’s my policy to grab any free time in between jobs and school sessions in order to travel. I haven’t been making a lot of money lately, but I kind of needed to go somewhere. It had been too long since I’d been anywhere for fun, and I was about to being a 2-year-plus graduate program. A recession may seem like a bad time to go on a vacation, but let me first assure you that a) I needed this vacation as much as anyone can truly “need” a vacation and b) it was a pretty cheap-ass trip, as far as going to another country goes. Think eggs and toast for dinner and sharing a double bed.
We chose Panama because it was relatively cheap, close, warm, and not Mexico. I have nothing against Mexico, only that it’s a large country with a lot of lame parts to it, and it just seems easier to find cool stuff when you’re in either a smaller country or in a country with fewer tourist traps.
We arrived in Panama City on January 3rd, checked in to our hostel, the wonderful Mamallena, and set about exploring the city. As far as Central America goes, Panama City is a metro area worth checking out. There are fun markets in Santa Ana, beautiful old churches in Casco Viejo, and possibly the biggest mall I’ve ever been to in Albrook. There’s also the canal, which we visited, and a handful of other fun places, such as the Causeway (a strip connecting three islands where you can rent bikes, which we did).
Our first mini-adventure was to the San Blas Islands. In a way, I’m not that sad that we don’t have photos from this part of the trip, as anything you find online is a pretty accurate portrayal. Let us pause for some eye candy:
After a bumpy and muddy 2.5 hour trek north in a 4-wheel drive, we were left at a swampy launch point, where we were picked up in a long motorized canoe. We were taken an hour out to sea until we reached an island that looked a lot like the first photo – absolutely pristine white sand, perhaps a quarter mile at the longest point, and surrounded by a bunch of other islands that weren’t permanently inhabited.
The San Blas islands are part of a Comarca (reservation) for the indigenous Kuna people. Though there are around 400 islands, the Kuna inhabit only a few dozen. After two days and one night on white sand paradise, eating fish and rice and drinking Coca Cola Light that was ferried out to us, we were taken back to an island that resembles the second photo. It was wall-to-wall thatched roof huts, with narrow paths leading in between. Outhouses were merely platforms built over the water, and trash was unfortunately dumped all over the shoreline. We spent one night in a hut, had a great time letting some young kids compose photos with my camera of us and the other kids wearing sunglasses and holding their toys, and then made our way back to Panama City, sunburnt but in great spirits after getting in some quality island time.
This is where the trouble began. Mamallena was booked, and so was pretty much every other place I called. Finally, I found a place called Hotel Colón, in Santa Ana. They had rooms for $22/night, and the neighborhood was right next to Casco Viejo, the old part of town with all the pretty colonial architecture. We had fun walking around the neighborhood, enjoying all the restaurants, shops, and life going on around us. We congratulated ourselves on finding a locally-owned hotel in a great neighborhood. However, that night we got mugged.
We were walking back from Casco Viejo after eating dinner. It was about 9pm. We weren’t too into the idea of catching a cab back, as our previous driver had been sketchy as hell. I had a map with me, and it was only ten blocks. What we didn’t know was that those ten blocks went straight through the worst part of Santa Ana – what is known as the ‘red zone’ – i.e. where gang violence and the like goes down.
I never felt in any great danger, even after a young dude came up to me and starting verbally bothering me in Spanish. There were at least a few dozen people within earshot, and the street was clearly lit. Before I knew it, he was reaching for my messenger bag, the strap of which was diagonal across my chest. My first reaction was to struggle with him and fight him for it, which included pulling on my bag and kicking at him. I looked around and G was on the ground, surrounded by three teenagers. She was screaming, but thankfully all they wanted was her bag.
As soon as we were free of our bags and the gang of kids ran off, we uselessly tried getting help from the passers-by. No one seemed to care, or was willing to offer assisstance. I later learned that a lot of people in this neighborhood are afraid of the teenage gang members. After a few tries, we found a cab that would stop for us.
Thanks to G, who remained calm and reasonable and also had $3 stashed in the pocket of her shorts, we decided to go back to Mamallena in the Perejil/Calidonia neighborhood and ditch our Santa Ana hotel. Our creepy driver took our $3, but not before asking us for our phone number. We got out, shaken and jumpy, and made our way to the hostel. Among the items stolen were our passports, all other forms of ID, $300 cash, our cameras, guide books, prescriptions, G’s ipod and phone, and lots of monetarily insignificant but important items. Our clothes were back at the other hotel, but we had no money or documentation there.
Up next… the thrilling conclusion 🙂