We crossed the Costa Rica/Panama border during daylight and we knew it because there was a very clear landmark: deforestation. The lush rainforest in Costa Rica ended abruptly at the Panama border, leaving no question about where we were. We kept sailing and arrived in Panama City during the night. The lights across the skyline suggested that Panama City was huge, stretching across the length the northern shore of the bay of Panama.
For some reason I was particularly awake that night so I told John to go back to sleep when he came to relieve me of my watch. I turned up my iPod and held my own private midnight dance party on deck, pausing in between songs to examine our surroundings with the binoculars and look for navigational beacons. I was scanning the horizon when I noticed that the lights of the city were clumped together in neat bundles, with distinct lines of black unlit skyline separating them. These lights weren’t those of Panama City, they were ships! Hundreds of ships gathered near the shore, waiting their turn to transit the canal.
A few hours later it was all hands on deck as we navigated through the shipping anchorage. Massive tankers with their decks lit up loomed above us like sleeping giants as we glided past them in the night. Over forty ships were crowded together on the screen of our AIS. Finally we slipped into the fuel dock at Isla Flamenco marina and went to bed around 3AM.
In the morning it became clear we were in the most developed country in Central America. This place was hustling and bustling. The marina was full of expensive powerboats, and workers were everywhere cleaning the boats, repairing them, or just lounging around on them blasting club music. In the daylight, the skyline of Panama City was impressive. It looked like Manhattan!
John’s parents, Vince and Margie, came down to visit and transit the canal with us. We met up with them at the coffee shop in the marina and Kitty and Margie fell in love. Later our day Tina, our agent, set us up with a driver to take us on a tour of the city. Our driver, Mario, took us to the Miraflores Lock in the Panama Canal so we could watch a ship going through.
To get to the French Quarter, however, we had to drive through the ghetto. It was quite dilapidated and seedy and apparently exceedingly dangerous. All taxi drivers we had while we were there told us to lock our doors and they drove like wildmen through the narrow streets, stopping for nothing and nobody. Mario, our driver, was a nice man who was a Seventh Day Adventist and told us all about what his life was like living in the ghetto. The drug dealers leave him alone because he is religious, and they call him “the pastor,” but he does his best to stay out of their business. His life depends on it.
Mario took his job as tour guide very seriously. He took us to his friend’s pizza restaurant for dinner. It was a family place with delicious Italian food and it was super cheap. Dinner for seven people came out to around $50. The only oddity about the place was that there was a security guard out front that we tipped as we left for ensuring us a safe dining experience.
Mario kept wanting to show us more and more of Panama City, even though it was getting later and later. He drove us around downtown, through the wealthy sections of town, and by the new Trump hotel whose architecture was inspired by sailboats. While the city skyline was impressive during the day, at night it was downright eerie. One would expect the buildings to be lit up like they are in US cities, but they were mostly dark. Some skyscrapers were completely unlit, indicating their vacancy, while others had lights on in only a small fraction of the rooms. When Mario insisted on finding us an ice cream shop even though we were nodding off in the car, we finally had to vehemently tell him to take us back to the marina as we were all exhausted.
We found ways to amuse ourselves while we waited for our canal transit date to be determined. One day I took a sojourn to Albrook mall and was blown away by its immensity. It was enormous! The biggest mall I’ve ever been in, bigger even the Mall of America in Minneapolis, I think. It was filled with people and everything was so cheap! After months of living on a boat in under-developed countries, the consumerism was an incredible culture shock. I spent about $20 and came home with a new boat wardrobe.
Finally we found out we’d be transiting the Panama Canal on February 14th, Valentine’s Day.