The Journey to Panama
Central America has been in the news a lot lately, especially in regards to US immigration policy. Based on the news reports and from the talk of the Trump administration, it would often seem that Central America is a war zone, and that someone would need to be crazy to visit the region. While Central America does have a significant crime and gang problem, particularly in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, it is actually one of my favorite regions to visit.
The last time I was in Central America was in 2016. Since I had three months off from my job, I figured 2018 would be the perfect opportunity to return to the region and see more of it. On previous trips, I had visited Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and I was itching to try to visit more countries in the area.
For this trip, I decided to visit Panama. To be honest, Panama was actually not my first choice. My first choice was Costa Rica, but when I checked flights on Southwest, which flew direct to San Jose, I found they were all sold out well in advance of the date I wanted, and the other options were not to my liking. However, flights to Panama were relatively cheap and also non-stop from my location in the US using Copa Airlines, which is the national carrier of Panama. Since Panama City is a major hub and gateway to Central and South America, I figured this would be a great way to visit a new country and possibly hit some more places. Plus, because my goal is to visit every country in the world, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would hit Panama sooner or later. For me, Panama was a new country, and that meant a new place to check out and explore.
The flight to Panama was scheduled for 9am on June 24. The flight itself would be five hours and arrive in the early afternoon. Upon arrival at the airport in the US at 6am, I was expecting to see a short line or a check-in desk that would not even be open yet since it would be rather early. Much to my surprise, when I walked in the airport, I found myself standing at the end of a very long line that stretched a lot further than I would have expected.
Thankfully, the line moved relatively quickly until a family of about twenty people with two large bags each checked in. It was then that the line came to a standstill for about 40 minutes. During that time, I saw about 15 other people who had done a web check-in get through fast. I will definitely remember to check in online the next time I use Copa Airlines. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I got checked in.without any issues and went through security fairly quickly with no issues or hassles. The only downside was that because the flight was completely full, I was relegated to the dreaded middle seat, but you cannot win them all, and there was no point in arguing, so I accepted what had to be and headed to security which functioned fairly efficiently.
I often like to spend time in lounges prior to departure and have a little bit of extra comfort. However, since it was still early, the lounge I intended to use was closed; it also the only one in the airport I have access to. Since the lounge did not open until after boarding for my flight started, I just got myself a sandwich from one of the small shops in the terminal and hung out at the gate until departure time.
Much to my surprise, the flight departed on time, but I was a bit disappointed to find that I was on an older plane. It did not have any USB ports to charge my phone, which is a point my seatmate who was sitting at the window made a goal of complaining about to me for a bit, so I spent a majority of the flight sleeping and watching "Victoria and Abdul" on the shared airplane screens. On occasion, my seatmate at the window would chat while my other seatmate in the aisle seat completely ignored us and worked on a presentation dealing with bankruptcy law.
Upon arrival in Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, I headed to immigration where I bungled my Spanish a bit. After getting my passport stamped with a new stamp, I headed to baggage claim and got my bag just as it was coming off the belt. That was complete luck since I thought I would need to wait for ages to get it. Once I claimed my bag, it was just a simple matter of heading to customs, running the bag through a machine, and handing the customs slip to the official. Everything went smoothly except I forgot to fill in the flight number on the customs form, but that was easy enough to fix.
Prior to leaving, I had contacted the hotel to book a taxi for me. The price would be $30, but that seemed to be a standard price for a taxi from the airport to the city. I was told that a driver would be waiting for me in the arrivals hall holding a sign with my name on it. However, when I got there, I did not see any driver. This kind of annoyed me since I had the same thing happen to me in Mexico a couple years ago. In that case, the driver decided to take a walk around the airport instead of waiting for me. However, by sheer luck, I happened to glance a guy walk into the terminal with a sign that had my name on it just as I was developing a plan to go it on my own. The driver barely had time to hold up the sign when I approached him. After some brief pleasantries, we stepped outside into the hot and humid air and headed to his car.
The ride from the airport to my hotel in Casco Viejo, which is the old part of Panama City, took about 20 minutes, and upon arrival at the hotel. I headed up to my room to cool off since the humidity was definitely extreme. After cooling off for a bit and checking out the view from the rooftop restaurant, I took a short walk around the general area to get my bearings since I would be exploring the area in more detail the next day.
Overall, aside from a very long check-in at the airport and a late driver, I am happy to say that I was able to officially reach my 74th country without too much trouble or hassle.