The “shake-down” in Panama
Everyone should see the Panama Canal at least once; however, if you schedule one of the 4 hour tours, you’ll be begging for 3 hrs and 30 minutes of your life back. Once you’ve seen one boat go through the locks, you’ve seen them all.
You’ll thank me later.
Before I dive into the shake-down, I’ll tell you where we stayed, where we ate and where we spent our week in Panama.
We called the luxurious Waldorf Astoria (the first Waldorf, in Latin America) home for a week, during our stay in Panama. We spent a few evenings winding down at the rooftop pool, relaxing in the jacuzzi and/or smoking cigars on the rooftop, and for my birthday I enjoyed a body scrub at the Waldorf’s spa. Most of the restaurants in the area closed on Christmas Day, so we went to Brio, a restaurant on Level 7 of the hotel. They served a traditional Panamanian Christmas dinner, as well as Western, Italian and Asian food.
Where we ate
On my birthday, we walked a block over from the Waldorf and dined at Azahar for dinner and I can’t say enough about how good the food was, they did not disappoint. It was by far my favorite restaurant in Panama. The waitstaff’s recommendations fit my palette perfectly and the service was unmatched.
The entrance to Azahar had a “speak easy” feel. They spared no expense on ambiance and decor and the food and drinks was spectacular.
We should keep [the Panama Canal]. After all, we stole it fair and square. ~ S. Hayakawa
Panama City is known as one of the safest countries in Latin America. However, like most countries, there are poverty stricken areas where you’re likely to encounter higher crime rates.
Panama has some of the most beautiful beaches; however, beaches in Panama City are polluted and unsafe to swim in so most tourist venture out to other cities/islands to enjoy the beach.
For most of our trip we used the driver that the Waldorf sent to retrieve us from the Airport. The Waldorf offers a free car service for local tourist attractions; however, we secured Bob (alias) as our guide for all of our tours.
Bob recommended Colon beach because it was closer and a smoother ride than San Blas Island. Although our initial plan was to go to San Blas, we agreed on Colon. Considering I’m not the lay out on the beach all day type, I didn’t want to spend 4 hours in the car to get to one.
Bob picked us up early the next day and off we went. As we left Panama City and entered the local’s territory, it wasn’t long before the landscape and neighborhoods started to change.
Two and half hours later as we started to see less houses and more water, it was obvious that we were getting close to the beach. Bob stopped at a house along the road, that sat right off the water; with, a small boat dock a few feet away from the house. He jumped out and went inside to speak with the owner and returned and said we needed to go to the main dock because the boat that she was lending him had already left and she was unsure of when her son would return it.
About 7 minutes up the road, we pulled into the parking lot and there stood a group of young men just standing around in the parking lot. As we approached they pointed to a parking spot, we parked, gathered our things and headed to the dock. The dock was only a few yards away from the car, so from the car we could see the armed officers guarding the dock like it was a custom’s border.
The officers started talking to Bob in a somewhat aggressive tone, so we just stood there patiently waiting for them to ask for our passports. I had read about random checkpoints so Stoney and I made sure to bring our passports.
I had no idea what they were saying but they appeared to be asking a lot of questions. Meanwhile, Bob kept looking back at us, assuring us that everything was okay. Next, they start searching him (patting him down) and after the pat down and searching the cooler, Bob removed the wine that he brought for me, from the cooler, and took it back to the car.
They quickly eyeball the inside of my bag and we proceed to get on the boat.
All seems well, we’re all on the boat and we’re about to pull off when they ask my Bob to get back off the boat. The entire time I’m thinking they’re asking more questions about us, like, where are we from, why are we in Panama, etc. Or maybe they remembered to ask for our passports. But I say nothing and sit quiet. Stoney was so overwhelmed by the little a$$ boat that I didn’t think he was paying attention to or cared what was going on around us. He was just trying not to drown lol. He probably secretly hoped they told us that we couldn’t go on the boat. If there was another way, other than these tiny boats, to get across to any of the beaches we wouldn’t be here fooling with this boat or these officers if it was up to Stoney.
A few minutes later Bob gets back on the boat and we leave the dock and head out for a beautiful day on the beach. On arrival, I asked Bob why the officers pulled him off the boat and he said when they searched him they found the knife strapped to his leg, so they questioned him further and took it from him
We hung out at the beach for a few hours and just when we decided it was time to start heading back it started raining.
Bob re-packed the cooler, gathered our towels and we boarded the boat. There was a group of four or five kids standing on the dock and once our boat stopped they started reaching into the boat to help us out. Nice gesture, but with an agenda, of course. Stoney got out first and gave one of the boys $5.00 and said, “You have to share it.” Most of the boys are ecstatic and walk away, but one is insisting that he give him more money. Stoney and Bob tell the boy to move on and eventually he does. They help me out of the boat and we proceed to the car.
The officers that previously guarded the dock was no where to found.
As we get closer to the car, Stoney and Bob quickly surround me and they are sort of guarding me while rushing me into the car. I move quickly as their body language suggests but I have no idea of what’s going on. I learned long time ago, to move and ask questions later. I spot the same guys from earlier, at that back of the car, and quickly lock the door.
Bob gets in the front seat, reaches for something under his seat and then he got back out of the car. While he’s behind the car, handing over money, Stoney explained to me what was going on and Bob confirmed it later. In short, they strong-arm everyone who parks in the (free) lot for money and if you don’t pay they’re known to rob you or get violent. Bob explained that’s why he never parks there and went to the women’s house first (on our way), because her boat dock is safe.
I don’t think it was coincidental that the officers disappeared but reappeared as we were pulling out of the parking lot. I think they’re all in on this scam. I also think that’s why they confiscated his knife. They’re stationed too close to where these guys hangs out, to not know what’s going on.
Colon is known as a high crime area. The types of crimes are typical of those found in metropolitan areas; such as, armed robberies, purse-snatchings and petty theft.
This is not to scare you away from Panama or Colon Beach, it’s to remind you to be vigilant where ever you go, be mindful of your surroundings, leave your valuables at home and use a guide or local for areas that you’re not familiar with. Fortunately, we were with a guide who knew what to expect and was prepared for it.