Made it here to Panama. Had to argue a bit with the ticket agent in the airport so as not to check my bag in...my backpack is borderline size to have to check...but I got away with carrying it on. Good thing because the ticket I bought would have sent my luggage to Colombia. What happened was I bought a ticket to Cartagena connecting through Panama City. The cheapest direct one-way was $700 or so, but I could buy tickets to Miami or Cartagena connecting in Panama City for $400 or so. At first it did not make much sense to me that it would cost twice as much to fly half the distance...but then I realized I was looking at it from the wrong angle. Airlines that dominate a niche market as COPA Airlines does in Panama City can charge what they want since other carriers are at a competitive disadvantage to fly there...but if COPA wants to compete in Colombia or Miami they have to have competitive prices...and you end up with seemingly senseless pricing schemes.
Had to pay $5 at immigration for a Tourist Card. Cannot stand little nickel and dime garbage like that but I am sure it makes since in someone's world...although seems strange that a country with tax-free zones, legalized gambling and prostitution, and liberal banking laws would have such a petty fee like that. Anyway, the lady I sat next to on the plane ended up giving me a ride into town despite the fact that we had to ride 4 people in the back of a 5 series BMW...the 18 year-old daughter rode on the aunt's lap. Really nice family. As for my initial impressions of the city...it's clear there is much more American influence here than down in South America. Wider roads, highways, fast-food joints, bigger cars, more franchised establishments rather than mom and pop stores...almost like being back home. Being on the Caribbean, Panama has quite a lot of racial diversity. The people seem much louder as well. The area of town I am in is somewhat seedy but seems safe enough.
Took one of the local buses down to the ¨Casco Viejo¨ which is the old part of town. The local buses are school buses...makes me wonder where they came from...perhaps left by our military on their way out...? Incidentally, Panama City also has the biggest bus station I´ve seen...I´d say about 300 meters long...more like an airport terminal...but then with a country this size you really don´t need to fly much so the buses get a lot of use, just like everywhere else in Latin America. Oh, and I should mention that each bus has its own custom paint job. The Panamanians take their vehicles seriously.
Anyway, you can ride around quite a while for a quarter. The old section of town reminded me in many ways of Cartagena. Very poor...but some beautiful old architecture and an interesting memorial documenting the history of efforts to build the canal before its eventual success when the US took over the operation abandoned by the French.