this is a Class A journal
On the top of the mountain ridges in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, you can see both the Pacific Ocean, and the Atlantic Ocean. This is how narrow the land bridge comes to be there. And it is here, that the French decided to build, or more realistically, plow, a canal to connect the two oceans, over 100 years ago. This project was unprecedented, and the little canal can save a month of voyage all the way around the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. After 100 years, this canal is still the most important infrastructure of the entire maritime industry.
And for the spring break of my junior year, I decided to visit this magnificent part of the world. The motive, to put it realistically, is quite foolish, foolishly simple one would say. A great secret sale of my airline (American Airlines) to that region touched somewhere deep in my heart (wallet), and I was able to book a flight into Panama City and out of Bogota, Colombia, in Business Class, at a cost of normally an Economy Class price. (still does not justify this trip given that I later decided to do this twice more just for the miles, but the photos later will prove this statement wrong)
March 18th, 2016, I finished my last exam, and hopped onto a Uber with my small backpack. A first time for me, flying a Business Class purchased and not upgraded, is an exciting task for me. I flew through everything in the priority lanes, despite walking into normal lines out of habit almost everywhere, and I boarded the flight to New York JFK. The legroom was obscene, and the quality is just overwhelming on this new A321. I did not sleep one single second on this red-eye flight, despite the lie-flat seat under my butt pleading me to try it out.
The touchscreen is too far ahead (I cannot believe I am saying this, but damn you super large legroom!), so there is a controller at the side of the seat.
Upon landing in JFK, I enjoyed some breakfast, and sleep of course, in the lounge, and quickly I was on my First Class flight to Miami.
Big Apple under the bright blue sky.
After another layover in Miami (I did this intentionally to increase the miles I can earn for my program, also to drag out my enjoyment of the Business Class service), I quickly settled in my seat to Panama City. I waited over 1 hour at the customs, and got into the city center via a taxi. I arrived late, and thus I did not explore much. The hostel I stayed in, Mamallena, is located in a super local neighborhood, and I did not see any single other hotel/hostel/agency in sight.
Do you know? Panama uses Balboa as their currency, but it is fixed to be exactly the same as US dollars, so actually, you can only see coins in Balboa, and all paper money is in US dollars. Thus you can see how good the relationship between the two is.
My (technically) second day at Panama City started with my trip to the local transport terminal: Terminal Albrook. This is the local airport+long distance bus hub+huge mall+local bus hub+anything else from a barber shop to a fake cellphone distribution center. The local buses require passengers to pay by charge card, and I had none, so I convinced a local to pay for me, awkwardly attracting all attention on my way to the terminal. I believe the best term to describe my situation as an Asian in the central America is a panda in a hen house?
Once at the terminal, I bought myself a charge card, and had lunch at the mall. I tried Pio Pio at the food court, which is basically Panamanian KFC.
Pio Pio combo: the soup is called Sanccocho, a soup of 4 kinds of potatoes and chicken.
In the afternoon, I ventured towards the world famous Panama Canal. It is about 7 km/5 miles from Albrook, and I was the only foreigner on the local bus. The canal has multiple locks, and the one closest and most prominent, is Miraflores locks. It is the Pacific gateway, and is the only one with a visitor center.
Here you can already see the water level difference!
The canal works as this way: ship comes in from either side, and the first set of locks rises them up to the level of the inland canal, and they get lowered back to the other sea’s level on the other side. Simple as that, but incredibly hard to construct. The explosives and pure digging killed many Jamaican, and other Caribbean African slave labor working there.
Looking east from the locks, you can already see a ship approaching.
The process to pass the locks is quite slow, it takes about 25 minutes for a ship to be lowered/raised, and exit the chamber. The wait under the hot sun is highly worth it, though. I am lucky to get a rather cloudy and windy date, which makes watching the ship quite pleasant. I was able to fend off multiple squadrons of mosquito formations. Zika is not a good souvenir to bring home.
Diamantis P, flying Liberian flag, passing the locks.
BW Havfrost, flying Norwegian flag, passing the locks.
The visitor center has a museum, a 3D movie theater, a cafe and a lunch buffet costing 20 bucks. (basically, touristy as it can be)
After my return to Albrook, I took the local metro train, which is ridiculously modern, even more so than those in Shanghai or Stockholm, to a local restaurant called El Trapiche. I got seated in the interior despite my demand of a patio, because “I am not blonde”, as this restaurant sees some tourist traffic, and they want to maximize their appeal to tourists walking by. I have been through things worse than this, so I guess that is why I did not complain too much to them. Racism comes in small and weird forms, my friends, and I personally always believed Asians are the weakest race in this fight because we never unite.
Local food, including fried dough, fried yam, fried cassava, fried pork skin, rice, beef and curry.
After my meal, I took a stroll in the tourist hotel area and returned to my hostel. I met a young German girl, and we chatted a while before going to sleep.
Day 3, as I talked more with the girl, we found out we had striking resemblance in our ways of travelling. We had almost the same small bag, and we both started traveling when we were very young. We took medium length backpacking instead of a lot of others who are either on epic-length-adventures or quick-turn-getaways. What is the most uncanny, however, is the fact that we both volunteered in the same facilities in Nepal when we were 17!!! As if life brought us together, and here we were, in the same hostel in Panama, talking to each other, 10000 miles from Kathmandu, in a different time, in a different space. I sent her off at the terminal, and I decided to take a stroll in Casco Viejo, the old castle.
In Latin America, the barber is gender sensitive. Barbería is for men, and Peluquería is for women, and the little door in the middle allows husbands and wives to walk between the two.
I took a taxi as there is no bus there. The Casco Viejo is the most touristy area, because it has a killer view of the city.
Nothing beats a beer with a skyline blown by the dusk sea breeze.
I slowly made my way through the old town, enjoying the statues, music, little handicraft stands, and silently judging those couples cuddling by the sea, you know, the typical Young travel stuffs.
An old man playing a slow piece of music, as if time comes to a still stop….
The grand cathedral of the area, full of the paw prints of a beast called time.
After a dinner of the catch of the day, and a great ceviche, I decided to walk along the sea back to my hostel, a 4 km stroll. The people all gathered at the walkway by the sea, talking, laughing, watching street performers do their magic tricks and sing their songs and vendors holla-ing their merchandise: life becomes alive here. Of course, there are a lot of couples, but most of the time I was trying to suppress my urge to push them all into the sea water as salty as my attitude.
Panama City at night.
I bought some breakfast, and I quickly dozed into sleep.
The fourth day, I woke up to take a bus to the Mirador causeway, a long lonely road to the middle of the ocean: my kind of road. I decided to walk the entire 6km of it. There is absolutely nobody on this Monday morning, and the wind blows onto my face like a lonely waitress welcoming the first customer. “As a lone traveler to another,” I whispered to the ocean, “we make great partners.”
The Mirador causeway. Am I watching the sea, or is the sea watching me?
After my walk of solitude, I returned back to Albrook, and took a chicken bus to the other airport of Panama City, Panama Pacifico (BLB). Having to take a budget carrier VivaColombia in their 28 inch seat seems like a pure joke since I landed 3 days ago in a 60 inch Business Class. But all travelers here know to get to Colombia from Panama is extremely difficult as the Darien gap prohibits any ground travel, since most of the travelers there ended up in ditches after a narco-trafficker groups strike. The budget airline VivaColombia saves the day, as now I am able to skip the 4-day-500-dollar cruise.
Worst airport I have been to: 1 room for waiting, and no food, no water, NO BATHROOM.
I met a Peace Corps volunteer on vacation. She is stationed in Costa Rica, and, well, is traveling south! We shared a taxi with 2 locals to the city center, and here I met with my friend May who happens to be travelling in the area. It is late, and we had dinner and head back to our airbnb.
Look at this killer view!
This is a city of miracles. 20 years ago, this is still a city ruled by the biggest cartel in the history of mankind. Now, it is bustling with nightlife, bars, art, knowledge, and happiness. 20 years ago, you will get paid 1000 USD if you bring a head of a cop to the cartel. Now, people come together from all over the world to create music, sculpture and paintings. 20 years ago, the neighborhoods on the hills boasts a 50% death rate of foreigners. Now, they welcome everyone in open arms with excellent public transportation.
Day 5, we headed out for the botanical garden, and then, we explored the Discovery Museum. Great city network, and awesome public transport system, make the traveling in Medellín really easy.
The botanical garden orchid park.
Afterwards, we went on to see the cathedral, the building with the most bricks in the world! (over 1 million!) We then went to the highlight of the journey: Medellin public tram that costs less than 30 cents! The city of Medellin is in a deep, deep valley, 1500m above the sea level. Getting to the poorer neighborhoods on the ridges both sides is ridiculously hard. The city realized their unique situation, so they decided to build a metro system different from the rest of the world, that best suits the city. CABLE.CARS. The dramatic improvement of the poorer neighborhoods proves that they are much wiser than the Los Angeles city government. Sorry I lost all my words, so I will let the pictures talk for me.
Best. Public. Transport. EVER!
Day six, we went to the art museum, which features the most important Colombian artist Betero. He is famous for his fat Monalisa painting.
The plaza in the center of the city.
A small chapel.
Next up, we decided to take a local bus, to a mountainous neighborhood, and then take another strange public transport only found here in Medellin: ESCALATORS! yes you read it right. There are escalators, 6 of them, taking you up 28 stories of mountains! FOR FREE! Additionally, it has some really good graffiti on the way, and the view is just stunning.
The escalators saving hundreds of hours every day.
Me on top, viewing the city. They may be poor here, but they are happy because they know they are the luckiest people in the world.
There is actually another secret public transport: SLIDESSSS OOHOOOOOO~!
An artist with his works.
Day 7, and this day is a day trip to the famous Guatape rock! It is a lonely rock (basically me in rock form), over 200m tall, standing in the middle of a archipelago in a lake. The public bus takes about 2 hours, and it is absolutely worth it. The climbing is also worth treating yourself a huge meal. No, I am not looking for excuses to eat that chicken wing. No I am not!
Now this is a big rock!
Oh no, not the stairs! NOT THE STAIRS!!!
If you are brave enough to venture to the top, you will be rewarded, heavily.
Of course it was easy for me, what are you talking about? Me crying as I roll down the stairs? what nonsense, pffff, hahaha, what nonsense.
Me and a friend who I met on the escalators the day before ate some mango, drank some beer, and of course, munched down 3 slices of whole pineapples, before going down. The view totally rocks!
It was well worth it, despite we both got sun burnt so badly. We later shed skin so much that others feel insecure because they fear that we may sap their warmth to fuel our reptilian bodies.
We took a titi to the town of Guatape, a mesmeric little stone pueblo full of art.
The town seems to be stuck in time, as all buildings are made of stone and bricks.
On the bus back, I took one last look at the rock, and it did the same back at me.
This day then marks the last of my stay in Medellin, and after a quick slumber, I am ready for the capital of the country: Bogota.
On the eighth day, I took an early flight into Bogota, the 3rd largest city in the Americas. Yes, it is bigger than Los Angeles, Rio, or Toronto. It is only behind Mexico City and New York. The flight cost me 27 dollars, thanks to the promotion Avianca is having. It took me 1 hour, and the new plane even has entertainment system! Upon disembarking, I could feel it: I was well above sea level, as the air is as thin as my undernourished cousin. Indeed, the city sits 2500m above sea level, and that means running becomes harder, but thank god I almost never exercise so I don’t have to.
After dropping my things off at the hostel, I ran into the Semana Santa parade. Choosing the Easter season to visit can be great because you get to see ceremonies like this, and of course, giving up any shopping experience as all of them are closed.
Priests, band, and soldiers parade for the Semana Santa/Holy Week.
Bogota, contrary to popular belief in North America, is very developed, at least in some regions of the urban sprawl. Though just came out of the shadow of the notorious drug era, it has made incredible progress. The people strive to improve the situation, and their hard work has definitely paid off. Colombia is now advancing at a pace faster than any other country in the region, while its neighbor Venezuela sank into complete shambles. This is the power of trust and unity.
After visiting the national museum (a great Spanish exercise as I was completely overwhelmed by its collection, and tried so hard to understand some of the beautiful artifacts/paintings), I walked slowly back towards my hostel. Encountering a restaurant that is actually open, I ran into the small establishment as quickly as, well, my normal speed when I see food (which is very, very fast).
This time, the sanccocho is triple the size, and the salad is bottomless. costs $4.
After devouring 30+ plates of salads, I walked(rolled) out the restaurant and joined a free graffiti walking tour. The city of Bogota has supported the street art scene tremendously, resulting in thousands of murals, paintings, sculptures, all over the city. The government sometimes even pay to coordinate some of the most famous artists to collaborate on a wall. The street art scene got so famous that our national heroine Justin Bieber tainted a slice of the wall on the 26th street here, of course by drawing a weed leaf on it. Thank goodness it was covered by local artists within 2 hours of its completion.
The bustling street art scene in Bogota.
After dinner, I went out and met so many travelers from all over the world. We celebrated the Semana Santa by drinking in a local pub, and of course a drunk local lady tried to seduce me. (what do you mean she asking me for more rum is not seducing? it surely is!)
Day 9, I met up with Bi Hui, a fellow traveler, and one of the very few that I know who travels with a parent, that I met in Peru in my Titikaka trip in 2013. We had great conversation in Spanish since I understood nothing and she kept laughing, so I assumed it was great. We went on a day trip to the famous salt mine church about 1 hour from the city. The church used to be a salt mine, but now it is carved with many religious stories and symbols, and turned into a tourist destination.
In a restaurant that we had lunch. This is how barbecue should be.
The salt mine church, this is over 200 m deep, and there are over 40 of these deep pits.
After the religious experience 180m below the surface, I was more than ready to have some good food and relax, so after a 4 hour bus ride back into the city due to the notorious Bogota traffic, I was dead.
What are you looking at? it is over! I said it! I died!
Fine, fine, I will continue.
The last day, I woke up to meet with Bi Hui, and her mother of course, and we went to the big mountain perching on the side of the city: Monserrate. The view is simply stunning. there are three ways to go up: cable car, steep slope train, and hiking. I always wanted to hike it, but the trail is closed due to prolonged drought. (thanks, global warming, and El Niño too) We took the train up, and the cable car down.
The broken wall of the old church.
The ridiculous urban sprawl, from 3000m above sea level.
Upon descending, we had lunch near the city center, and the entire square was preparing for the closing of Bogota Film Festival that took place all over the entire Semana Santa. We went for the sermon in the national grand cathedral as well.
The grand cathedral.
Afterwards, we went on for the Gold Museum: the largest collection of gold in the entire Americas. There is a room that is filled with gold, with gold in the walls, in the ceiling, beneath the glass floor….. I had a wild dream that night.
GOLD! GOLLLLD!!! (these are the nose rings worn by indigenous people)
Of course, there are llamas in the touristy spots waiting for someone to spit onto.
Baby llama and mommy llama DAWWWWWWWWWWWWW
After my mandatory travel tradition of purchasing a cap and mailing a postcard, I was on my way back to the hostel! Thank you Bi Hui, and you mother, for all the hospitality, and endurance for my crappy Spanish!
Return and Epilogue
Day 11, I took an early flight back to Miami, and transited back to Los Angeles. School has already started, but I am still spoiling myself with first class service in a First Class cabin filled with 50+ year olds. I felt, special. I always knew that Colombia has changed a lot, but this is a trip that truly told me how much this great nation has improved. The narcotic nation no longer exists, and in its place a proud country, formidable yet amicable.
These people are committed to change. Every person working in the airport is searched by their fellow workers twice even on the tarmac, to prevent drug trafficking.
Can I say that I loved the garlic bread the most? oh god I am never blending into the upper class….
Panama is a great nation with ever-increasing power, and Colombia is absolutely opposite of whatever you heard from the news in the old days. Both nations are fantastic beyond my imagination, and I would definitely recommend everyone to experience these two magical countries.
Of course I used metro system of all 3 cities I visited!
I am going back someday, since I missed so many beautiful places due to the short time I had during my breaks. I always believed that I will go back to a place I visited before, because the different people, different places, and even the different time, will make the journey totally different.
I am very grateful for all that supported me throughout these days, and I especially express my gratitude to Bi Hui for being the best host ever! Who knows when I will come back? Maybe next year, maybe tomorrow! This is the part of being a traveler that I love: no matter how you plan, surprises always await you.