In June of 2007, I set off on my first real international vacation. I say “real” because I had technically been out of the country before; my family went on a Disney cruise that stopped in St. Maarten when I was in 9th grade and we briefly crossed the border into Laredo, Mexico, while visiting my grandfather’s Texas ranch in 10th grade. But my trip to Panama was the first time I spent more than a couple of hours outside the United States, my first time using a passport, and my first time truly getting to experience a culture that was not my own.
(Fair warning: The only thing worse than the quality of my point-and-shoot camera on this trip was my sense of fashion :P)
I owe my first international vacation to my dear friend Cristina and her family. Ti and I met during our freshman year of college when we lived just down the hall from each other. Her big heart and great sense of humor drew me to her immediately, and we became fast friends. Even though I hadn’t done much of it yet, Cristina knew how ardently I loved the idea of travel and how fascinated I was by other places and cultures. I was absolutely dumbstruck, however, when she invited me to come along with her family to celebrate her grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary in Panama and Colombia.
And of course I said yes.
One passport application, a few vaccines, and many months of excited anticipation later, we set off from Newark International Airport for Panama City (Ciudad de Panamá), Panama. I was folded into the family right off the bat, and I don’t just mean Cristina’s immediate family. In addition to her grandparents, parents, and siblings, there were lots of aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, and other tagalongs like myself, not to mention the contingent of friends and relatives awaiting us in Panama. It was a big, loud, excited, energetic, and boisterous crew, and I was immediately in love.
Much of our time was spent in Ciudad de Panamá, where we based ourselves at the Hotel El Panama and toured the city en masse. We started with some great scenic viewpoints.
Then there were delicious raspados, a shaved ice treat topped with condensed milk…
… a beautiful Plaza de la Independencia…
… and a fascinating trip to Panama Viejo, where we saw the ruins of the original Panama City.
The next day was one of my favorite parts of the trip: visiting the Panama Canal. The Miraflores Locks are just outside of the city and have a great visitor’s center. It was absolutely fascinating to watch the huge cargo ships enter the locks, rise or fall as water was pumped in or drained out, and then go along their way. It was shocking how quickly the locks could fill and empty and how efficiently these huge tankers were able to move through.
The canal really is an engineering marvel, and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to see it in action and learn more about the impressive effort it took to design and build it. Even though the day was gloomy, I could have watched the ships coming and going for hours.
We also visited a place called Mi Pueblito, a tourist attraction that is aims to recreate multiple kinds of settlements from Panamanian history. There’s a Spanish hacienda, some other colonial buildings, and a replica indigenous village.
The goal of Mi Pueblito is ostensibly to educate visitors about the country’s history, but looking back it was very manufactured and there were lots of shopping opportunities that rather took away from the authenticity. At the time, though, I was enchanted by the feeling that I was stepping into history.
Another of my favorite things we did on our trip to Panama was going on a chiva. I had been told that a chiva was a party bus, but in reality it was so much more – and so much more fun!
When we walked out of the hotel to meet our chiva that evening, we were met by a brightly-painted school bus with one side completely open for hopping on and off. Gone was the middle aisle; longer bench seats were pushed against the opposite side and you walked down the open side of the bus. A full brass band and drummer sat in the middle, there were liquor bottles in cup holders at every seat, and we even had a woman onboard who was part band leader, part mistress of ceremonies, and part tour director.
Once we had all crowded aboard, the party began. We spent the next few hours cruising around Panama City with the band blaring music, drinks flowing, and people dancing in the off-center aisle.
We stopped back at Mi Pueblito for a feast of Panamanian snacks, at a nightclub for a bit of dancing, and along the waterfront for great nighttime views of the city and more spontaneous dancing. It was so much fun, and the perfect activity for a big, energetic, rowdy family!
After the chiva, it was time to relax. The original plan for our trip had been to spend some time in Panama before flying to Cartagena, Colombia, for the anniversary party and other festivities. Unfortunately, Cristina’s grandmother was having some health troubles at the time, and the Colombian part of the itinerary got axed. Our disappointment in not being able to explore another country was somewhat soothed by the last-minute addition of a trip to the beach.
(Side note: This was back when Colombia was still pretty under-the-radar tourism-wise and dangerous in many locations due to the ongoing conflict with the FARC. My mom was somewhat relieved when we ended up staying in Panama, but I was disappointed to miss it. I still haven’t made it to Colombia and it’s really high on my bucket list as a result.)
A couple of sun-filled days later, we returned to the city for the main event: the 50th anniversary celebration for Cristina’s grandparents. First came a Mass where they renewed their vows and their marriage was blessed, followed by a big dinner and – what else? – dancing!
The last stop on our itinerary was a day trip to what the family referred to as “El Valle” (“The Valley”). At the time, I thought that was the actual name of the town or area, though in retrospect I’m pretty sure it was just family shorthand for whichever valley we were visiting in Panama’s interior.
Cristina’s relatives had a country home there, and we spent the day wandering the local market, relaxing at their home, and going on my very first ziplining adventure through the jungle.
Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better first international vacation. Not only was Panama itself fascinating, beautiful, and delicious, but it was such a blessing to be able to experience it as part of a big Panamanian family. There’s no doubt that this trip fanned the flames of my love for travel, improved my Spanish, and set the stage for my later adventures through South America.
I’m so grateful to Cristina and her relatives for letting me tag along.
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