#Rio2016 Day 1: Panama City, Gateway to the Americas

This month, I’m sharing my travels to Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Summer Olympics. This trip has been on my radar for a few years. Time seems to have flown by!

Facebook post introducing this blog experiment

Better than Luxury Travel?

I have two primary modes of travel: 1) on business with a corporate credit card, and 2) on leisure as if I were a college student. This trip is definitely more of the second, and was inspired by my adventures in marathon racing over the past four years. It’s incredibly difficult for any athlete to make it to the Olympics. It’s much easier for me to travel there to cheer on the best in the world!

The Road to Rio began in San Francisco. In June, I made peace with the Zika virus, checked the latest flight deals on CheapOAir.com, and booked a roundtrip flight on Copa Airlines that offered a day trip to Panama City. I love side trips during layovers!

I did about 2 hours of research on Panama City before I decided to just land there, and see if I could figure out what to do. The U.S. passport would get me in without a visa, and the Internet said Panama accepts dollar bills; no currency-conversion math required. Plus, almost 20 years ago, I had studied Spanish as a required second language in high school. Despite watching many hours of dramatic telenovelas on Univisión and memorizing the capitals of Spanish-speaking countries, I had never actually been to a Spanish-speaking country! (California doesn’t count.)

Sunrise enroute to Panama City. I like to go for the Window seats!

Race to the Panama Canal

Traveling on time and budget constraints is a great exercise in prioritization. I decided on the one thing in Panama City I really wanted to see: the Panama Canal. I’ve heard about it before, Mark Zuckerberg posted about it, and Wall Street Journal shared a video on canal expansion plans. That’s good enough for me!

While packing for the trip, I realized that it was going to rain on my visit, that I might not enjoy walking with my 18-pound carry-on bag for a whole day, and that there wasn’t easy & fast public transportation from the airport (PTY) to the Panama Canal at Miraflores (the location that people seem to recommend to tourists). I briefly considered renting a car for flexibility reasons, and for use as a big metal bag holder and umbrella. But I really wanted to get to Rio in one piece, and got frightened by Internet blogs about driving in Panama City. Maybe I’ll save risky driving in a foreign country for a future trip.

I landed at Panama City’s Tocumen airport at 8:15 am, and headed for the bathroom and customs exits. Speed advice: if there’s a long bathroom line, try walking to later bathrooms. Also, picking up and filling out the customs form on the plane is more efficient than me trying to find the correct form. After clearing customs, I needed to find answers on how to get to the Canal and tour the city. The answers soon found me! At the arrival (first) level of the international terminal, a guy working at a baggage-holding service saw me with my backpack and asked if I wanted to store it. The storage fee was $5 for 24 hours. I said that I would walk around first, and think about it. Another guy asked if I wanted to take a 3-hour tour for $30, which departs at 9:20 am and heads first to the Miraflores location of the Panama Canal. I didn’t say yes right away. Instead, I kept walking the arrival level, and considered options for renting a car, taking a cab, calling Uber (and get a SIM card or Wifi hotspot), or maybe solving the adventurous puzzle of bus transportation. The city tour was Spanish-only, and I thought I might want to explore Panama City for more than 3 hours (my layover was almost 12 hours). By 9:20 am, I had dropped off my bag (a bad baggage service probably wouldn’t have a prime location inside the airport), paid the wandering tour guy (a female airport employee independently recommended that I talk to him about a city tour), and hopped onto the tour bus which by then included about 10 people, all Spanish speakers (no other Americans).

Proudly displaying my Spanish tourist sticker

Well, I understood about 20% of the all-Spanish tour. But I greatly enjoyed the immersive experience and fondly remembered my high-school Spanish teacher (who had also recommended Costa Rica as a worthy travel and/or retirement destination). Most importantly, I correctly interpreted spoken numbers and times in Spanish, so managed to get back to the tour bus mostly on time (about 2 minutes late, and the last one back from the Canal). Despite my initial paranoia, the people working at the baggage-holding service and the tour service turned out very nice. They managed to communicate with me well (perhaps because they also knew some English words), and made me feel welcome in an unfamiliar city!

Visuals of Panama City

Admittedly, my first sighting of the Panama Canal did not live up to my grandiose expectations. I think my actual thoughts upon seeing the Miraflores Locks was: “That’s it?” I also didn’t see any boats upon arrival, though later I saw a video from another tourist’s phone. Despite thinking that I could’ve just watched everything on YouTube, I did finally see a live boat moving through a farther Canal lock, which I later learned is likely part of the expanded/upgraded Canal. Not bad!

Perhaps it’s just easy to take modern marvels for granted: flight travel, electricity, the Internet, the Panama Canal. Deeper knowledge often leads to greater appreciation. If you visit the Miraflores museum, make sure to go up all the floors to see the various exhibits. They’ve put a lot of effort into designing the exhibits and showing how the Canals’ lock system works. Worth the $15 admission, even excluding the 3D movie (which I didn’t see during my 1 hour visit).

After the Canal, we drove to a marketplace full of other tour buses. If it were up to me, I would not have stopped at the marketplace for 20 minutes (I’ve been to similar touristy sites in China, Thailand, etc.). But the drive did go pass some interesting and contrasting scenes of city living in Panama (e.g. is it just me or are there a LOT of alcohol ads in lower-income neighborhoods?). The bus driver remembered that I had thought about hopping off the bus tour in downtown Panama to do some further exploration within the city. But the high heat/humidity (it felt like 90°F) and the red-eye flight was getting to me, and I chose the easier option of staying on the bus to head back to the airport. I picked up my bag (everything was still there!), went through security, and took a nap on a chair in front of wristwatch ads. Booming sounds interrupted my nap, which I ignored. Later, I realized that it was pouring rain outside, and the booming sounds were from the thunder. I had conveniently missed the rain and lightning by staying indoors!

Collage of Panama City visuals from 3 hour tour. In reading order: 1) Miraflores Locks at Panama Canal with cargo ship in the back, 2) View from inside the Miraflores museum, 3) Giant Panama beer ad on lower-income housing 4) Modern skyscrapers, 5) View of downtown skyscrapers and construction rubble from a tourist marketplace. Note that I did not venture into many of the neighborhoods recommended by TripAdvisor etc.

What is Panamanian Food?

The long airport layover allowed me to hide from the rain, and also check out the giant mall and food shop that is just like any other modern airport in the world. The brands looked like any other American airport (Nike, Swarovski, etc.). Though I did want to eat some local cuisine, the best I could do inside the airport on this day was an empanada de atun (tuna empananda) from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Well, I least I stayed away from Carl’s Jr., Cinnabon, Dominoes, etc. Signs for these places were actually the first thing I saw after getting off the plane. It was as if I didn’t actually fly 7 hours from San Francisco, California. Heck, there’s even a neighborhood called San Francisco in Panama City (which I didn’t visit, but can see later on Google Street View).

Items currently NOT found in the San Francisco, California version of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.

Ready for Zika?

In preparation for potential encounters with Zika-carrying mosquitos, I had gone on Jet.com and ordered a bunch of anti-mosquito products. Based on recommendations (including Internet recommendations for ingredients that best fend off Zika-happy mosquitos), I got these: bracelets, spray, towelettes. However, while packing, I realized that there was no way I could fit everything in my one carry-on bag, so downsized the number of bracelets and towelettes. I remembered to put on a pungent anti-mosquito bracelet before heading outside the Panama City airport, but didn’t use the other products or wear the bracelet indoors for the most part. Later, I realized that mosquitos are probably smart enough to fly indoors. Drat! I also need to remember to spray.

Earlier this summer, some folks and I teamed up for a Civic Hackathon at SF State University to hack up a chat bot related to Zika. It’s been on my to-do list to try to launch it publicly. One of my teammates had already wrote up a nice summary of our work, which was highlighted by OpenIDEO as a top project. As I ventured ever closer to the Amazon (rainforest), I surfed onto the latest in Zika news (state of emergency in Puerto Rico, yikes) and tinkered with the code for the chat bot. Let’s see if Facebook might approve launching it before I fly out of South America on August 24!

First day in Brazil is tomorrow!