Getting from Tocumen airport to the city: You can get taxi from the airport to the city but they are pretty expensive. If you opt to take a bus, here is what we did. When you leave the airport, turn right and keep walking until you get to a small alleyway behind a shop or office. Walk through the alley and keep going slightly right through a car park until you get to some roads. You are aiming for a bus stop right on the other side of all these roads. When you are stood at the bus stop with the airport in front of you, you want to take a bus going to your right. You can take the air-conditioned white buses but you need a card so can give someone the money to swipe you in (it should cost around 75c). We opted for a 'Diablo Rojo' (Red Devil) bus, which are the old classic Panamanian buses that look like Colombian Chivas. It cost 50c and had no aircon and online I saw it described as the 'poor people's bus'. But it was fine and felt safe as everyone had their iphones out. It took around 50 minutes to get to Vía Espana where we got off for our hotel. You pay when you get off the bus
Hotel: We stayed in the Veneto Wyndham hotel in el Cangrejo neighbourhood. We got a good deal for £140 for 4 nights for both of us and we were really impressed with the hotel. It had a Las Vegas feel to it as it had a casino on the lobby floor and quite grand decorations. It had a free rooftop pool, gym and pingpong table and the rooms were huge including a massive double bed, flat screen TV, desk, fridge and huge walk-in shower. The street it is on isn't exactly nice, but it had a few nice restaurants on it and some minimarkets. It was also just down the road from the metro stations and was only a 15 minute walk to the sea. The only downer from the hotel was that on our last day, my boyfriend left $20 on his bedside table and when we went to the pool for an hour, it got stolen. This is in spite of the fact that we kept the 'do not disturb' sign on the door the entire time so cleaners should never have gone in. We complained to the hotel but they denied it. So be careful what you leave out as it will probably go missing!
General perception of the city: The city feels very different to Colombia. Of course the huge sky scrapers give it a more American look but it is actually more of a facade. One you get up close and walk around the streets, there are a lot of run down buildings and blocks of flats in between these multi-million pound skyscrapers. One of which, an amazing spiral tower is brand new but has actually been empty for 4 years, as a taxi driver told us. So it seems that, like in Colombia, Panama has problems of government abandonment, corruption and illicit activity, meaning that the economy fluctuates massively and leading to inequality. This was confirmed when talking to other Panamanians we met who told us about the mafia that has de facto rule there.
The Cinta Costera, a walk way along the coast it lovely, although there used to be a beach which was ruined by unregulated building and pollution of the water, so a beach would have been nicer! They are planning a regeneration project over the next 10-15 years to restore a beach and clean up the water so hopefully that will happen. It is used a lot by locals for walks and running or skating, although for me it would be far too hot! The old town, called the Casco Viejo, was beautiful with old colonial buildings including the presidential palace. However, even in this tourist attraction where the president lives, there were extremely run down and abandoned houses and a lack of maintenance. It was bizarre to have such lavish and pristine government buildings right next to abandoned and burnt down houses. One thing we found strange during our holiday was that we didn't find a supermarket anywhere, not even in shopping centres. And the shopping centres we did go to in the city (excluding Albrook) were deserted!
Budget: Although we were advised that Panama was quite cheap, we found everything more expensive than Colombia. The minimum for a meal was $6 and average taxi rides were $3/4 but you had to haggle hard and still much more than in Cali. We planned a budget of $20 a day each for transport and food and we ate breakfast in our hotel room by buying milk and cereal - proper shoestring traveling! This would be the absolute minimum you could go with.
Night out: My boyfriend has a friend from Cali who lived in Panama so we got in touch and her and her husband picked us up to go for dinner. My boyfriend had warned her that we were on a very tight budget so needed to go somewhere cheap. They picked us up from our hotel in an American-style Ford Raptor pick up truck that made other 4x4s look like children's toys! I have never been in a car I had to climb two steps to get into and I felt like I needed a rope to abseil down it to get out! They took us to the old town to this beautiful rooftop restaurant overlooking the city skyline and we took a look at the menus. I pinched by boyfriend's leg. Nothing was less than $18. We sat there awkwardly trying to telepathically decide how to play this and eventually my boyfriend told them that this would be too expensive for us, to which they expressed surprise. They clearly have a certain lifestyle and income over there as they picked this place out because they thought it was cheap! Awkward minutes of silence followed and then they said they would pay. We ended up having a really nice night and the temperature was incredible. However, not only was the food extremely over priced, but it was nothing more than tiny pretentious portions, less than I would consider a starter! It was delicious but we left still feeling famished after our day of traveling!
I felt pretty embarrassed that they ended up having to pay, but our lives are just in very different places and they were quite a bit older than us. Or that's how I justified it to myself anyway. I tried to explain our situation to them and said that I haven't been working since finishing my Masters to which she replied that that sounds brilliant as I have been on a long holiday in Colombia meanwhile, but I explained that I have been just job hunting and I wouldn't call it a holiday. Clearly still not getting it, when we asked for somewhere low-key and cheap to spend the New Year, they suggested the $150 a head Hard Rock Café! I nodded politely and recounted my $20 a day budget for Panama. It was very amusing and goes to show how some people live here!
Safety: In general, Panama City felt significantly safer than Cali and the Colombian coast, perhaps due to the smaller population (the whole country has the same amount of people as Cali), the more established tourist industry, or some other factors. We felt totally fine walking around at night which we would never do in Cali unless we had to for some reason, and were never approached by anyone begging and hardly saw any homeless people compared to Cali. My boyfriend's friend who we met up with who is from Cali confirmed this and told us that she felt so safe living in Panama and in Cali she would be very careful but was robbed at gunpoint inside her car numerous times in daylight and got her phone stolen at knife point when she was walking in her strata neighbourhood. Another Colombian we met from Bogota who was the owner of a restaurant also agreed and said that living in Panama was just completely different safety-wise.
Shopping: I had intended to buy some work clothes in Panama so I had withdrawn some dollars for it and we went to Albrook Mall by taxi ($3) as we had heard it was relatively cheap and the biggest shopping centre in the country. We were very disappointed. It was small, expensive and there were no suitable clothes. Another day we went to Multicentro shopping centre near the consulate as my boyfriend's friend had told us it was the best and poshest one, so we were expecting more choice or quality cothing, but once again, it was small, non-airconditioned and very disappointing shops. Compared to the shopping centres in Colombia, what we were told was the best one in Panama wasn't even as good at the not-very-good ones in Cali. All the clothes in Panama were either designer sport-style clothing like Lacoste or Tommy Hilfiger or were extremely tacky, overpriced clothes with sequins and diamantes or big slits to show off surgically altered bodies. There was also almost not option to buy cotton clothing and most of it was synthetic which is crazy for the Panamanian heat! These types of clothes certainly exist in Colombia too, but tend to be the lower end of quality and price and in nice shopping centres or outlets stores you can find shops selling nice designs and cotton clothing! Needless to say that I didn't end up buying anything!
Getting around: Panama is a strange city transport-wise and you need a travel card to use the metro and buses (which you need your passport to buy) so most tourists opt for taxis. However, in Panama, they are not required to have taxi-metres so just charge whatever they want, which tends to be more for foreigners. Thankfully my boyfriend is a 'local' and is used to bartering but we still got ripped off as we didn't know how much rides should cost. After our trip, we can confidently say that the average taxi ride, lasting 10-15 minutes should cost $3-$3.50 and no more! Although the taxi drivers are stubborn and often will not budge. For the same trip, one taxi driver would not move from $8 and made it seem like we were ripping him off, but then we found another that charged us $3. Another strange fact about taxis in Panama is that when you are in the middle of a ride, they will slow down and beep at pedestrians, offering their services, and will stop to pick up more people. So it is more like an expensive bus than a taxi!
American influence: One of the main things we noticed about the city and culture is that it is extremely 'americanised'. Not only do they have the dollar as their currency, but their police wear identical uniforms to American police, the police cars are the same as in America too and even have the slogan 'Protect and Serve', and there was an almost total lack of Panamanian businesses. There were so many American restaurants like Popeye's chicken, Wendy's, Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, dunkin' Donuts, almost all the television programs we saw were Colombian and the rest were American and most of the banks were Colombian. I thought Colombia was very 'americanised', but that is nothing compared to Panama. The links between Panama and America due to the building of the canal and the use of the currency has obviously had an effect on local businesses and has been used to America's advantage. There were also a lot of American tourists and expats who live there who we saw walking their dogs along the cinta costera.
Language: Another side effect of this 'americanisation' is that we noticed that a lot of Spanglish was officially adopted. For example, many signs used the English term instead of the Spanish such as 'Parking' instead of 'Parqueadero' and many more such as 'soda' instead of 'gaseosa. Spoken Spanish also seemed to have deteriorated and we heard locals say 'llamar patras', which literally means 'to call (someone) back'. But this is solely an English phrase and in Spanish it should 'llamar más tarde' or 'volver la llamada'. Apparently they speak like this in Puerto Rico too, as it is basically part of America.