Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 20 (Tue, 25 Mar)

Itinerary - Depart Havana on Copa Airlines flight CM231 at 07:57. This economy flight to Panama City Tocumen International Airport takes 1h 35m, arriving 10:32. Arrive to Panama. A representative of EcoCircuitos will meet you at the international airport for your transfer to your hotel in Panama City. 3 nights - Hotel Bristol - Suite Room.

The hotel for my last night in Cuba is a great success. It´s an old building in the Spanish style. My suite has to massive French windows with views of the Plaza dos Armes. During the day, it's fairly noisy with the children playing and the music but at night, only the sighing of the wind can be heard. The staff are very good but there's the occasional language problem. I tried to order a 'wake up call' by telephone and, I finally realised, I'd been transferred by the first person to room service, who were trying to work out how to cook a 'wake up call'. We eventually got it sorted.

I slept well and woke to my alarm. The wake-up call followed shortly afterwards. The night man on the bar rustled up orange juice and toast, so that was alright. My taxi turned up early and it was still dark when we got to the airport. I started to panic because I couldn´t find any documentation for my flight to Panama and I wasn´t sure that it was supposed to be an electronic booking. I managed to find a Havanatur representative and she found me on her passenger manifest taken from Copa Airlines computer. There´ll be no problem, she said, and it proved so.

We left on time but the flight was longer than I expected because there´s a one hour time difference at present between Cuba and Panama. Panama airport was fairly deserted - I breezed through Immigration and only had a few minutes to wait before the checked bag arrived. I was met by a pleasant young man from the local agents Eco Circuitos Panama and we were soon on the Mexican-built toll road heading for the Bristol Hotel (oh, alright then, I have to say it: "I wonder if there´s a Panama Hotel in Bristol?"). It was decidedly cool this morning when we left Havana but it´s very hot and sticky in Panama.

Although the Bristol is located in a modern building, the furnishing and decorations are in very traditional style and it works quite well. Most importantly, the staff are friendly and attentive and I´m in a suite of generous proportions. Much as I feel ready to relax, I just have a quick shower and determine to explore a little.

Central Panama City is all high rise but, in parts, scruffier than I was expecting. The Bristol is located in a quieter side road not too far from the Centre. I´m carrying some Sterling and intended to change some into dollars for the Panama segment. The hotel are unable to oblige but direct me to the Scotia Bank who also can´t do it and suggest Western Union. Setting aside the currency problem for a while (I have a few US dollars to keep me going), I walk a few hundred yards to Avenue Bilboa and there, on the other side of the road, is the Pacific, with waves breaking on the rocky shore.

My intended destination is the World Heritage Site of El Casco Antiguo, the colonial town founded in 1673 after the first settlement (Panama la Vieja, the Old Town, started 1519) was destroyed by pirates. It must be at least a couple of miles but I keep walking - at walking pace you can learn so much more. Perhaps most interesting was my route into the peninsula which the old town occupies which was via a very scruffy Fish Market area with not a tourist in sight. Various dilapidated boats lay on the seaward side and run-down housing on the land side. Both sides of the road were lined with tin shack market stalls mainly selling all sorts of engineering items - automotive spares, electrical wire, stall after stall loaded with bits that already look very second hand. I passed one pavement barber and I dare say you could find any service if you knew your way around.

That area led on to what I presume the Heritage Inscription was based on - a core of churches and administrative buildings restored to reasonable condition. The work´s not completed, though, and there are plenty of roofless derelicts still to be dealt with, some with restoration in progress. Very reminiscent of Havana. There were plenty of tourists in these ├íreas (I beg your pardon, I mean areas - where did that accent come from?) and, consequently, a lot of souvenir vendors. There were also a lot of upmarket restaurants and bars. Cars and SUVs were parked all over the place and there was a continuous drone of air conditioning systems as the drivers keep the vehicles nice and cool whilst waiting for their passengers to return.

I visited the Panama Canal Museum which is housed in one of the restored buildings then visited a downmarket Chinese restaurant frequented by locals and backpackers for a restorative Coca-Cola, then hailed a taxi to come back. I was surprised that I chased off a local who tried to ´pinch´ my taxi - I think I must get more aggressive when I get tired. The taxi driver didn´t seem too happy that I didn´t speak Spanish, but he took me where I wanted (Western Union) and charged me the proper ´local price´. He cheered up considerably when he got a tip for his honesty. I looked at Western Union but, not wanting to wait in line, I changed my mind and successfully drew dollars instead from a nearby ATM using my one remaining credit card. It was then a short walk back to my hotel for a shower. I slept for a couple of hours, decided not to go out again, had soup and ice cream from room service and went to bed. A tiring but enjoyable day.

Photographs

Bristol Hotel, Panama City.
Panama City.