The airliner approached from the east and made its slow descent over the tropical forests of Panama. Suddenly, the Pacific coast rose out of nowhere, glittering splendidly in the golden sun.
A generously wide turn over the ocean brought Panama City into my view as the pilot navigated to Tocumen Airport.
An armada of shipping vessels anchored near the shoreline below, awaiting their turn to sail through the Panama Canal.
The high-rises afar reminded me of an American city. Proud skyscrapers towered majestically into the blue sky.
After a two-minute sight-seeing tour from 3,000 feet above, we descended onto the runway and made a smooth landing.
The 11-hour flight from Europe was silky and on-time.
Admission through immigration was fast and without a hassle. A serious-looking lady stamped my passport and quickly shifted her attention to the passenger behind me.
Off to Customs. A rigorous screening process similar to security check-ins at an airport appeared to be next. Hundreds of travelers were queuing in front of me. I had suitcases. Lots of them. Seven, to be exact.
As I was loading them onto two large carts, a uniformed officer saw me struggle. He approached me, smiled, and guided me to the head of the line. I loaded my bags onto the conveyer belt to be x-rayed. Not a single question from Customs. In less than three minutes, I was land-side and tried to orient myself in the narrow, lengthy arrival hall.
Two things I needed to do: First, getting a SIM card for my cell phone, and second, meeting my pre-arranged driver. A helpful phone company person at a SIM card vending machine helped me to purchase one. She even installed and activated it. My Spanish was still limited to “Hola” and “Grrracias!” She spoke English. So far so good.
ETA thirty minutes
I quickly found my pre-booked driver. Pre-arranging travel from the airport is something I would recommend for every newcomer to Panama. For $40.00, he took me from the airport to my final destination about 30 minutes away. Cabs are ok if you know your way around.
But if you are a brand-spanking-new arrival, a baby-Panamanian, it’s best to play it safe, especially when carrying lots of cash and when having stowed your entire life in a few suitcases.
And, finally, the apartment
After a full day in the air, I was tired, excited and looking forward to heading to the apartment I had arranged to rent ahead of time. As the comfortable van exited the airport, the sun was setting rapidly, tropical style. I noticed an unknown, pleasant aroma in the air. The flowery fragrance filled my senses and I relaxed in my seat.
Thirty minutes later, the driver dropped me off at my apartment complex. An armed guard approached and waved us through after I explained my business by holding up a piece of paper with the details of my new address. The security man rattled some sentences off I didn’t understand. But my “gracias” seemed to do the trick.
Upstairs, on the 21st floor, I met my realtor contact and the landlord, who had also brought his two kids. After signing the paperwork, the Canadian real estate agent offered to drive me to a supermarket to get some essentials. We quickly arrived at the parking lot of a Super 99, a mid-level, regular supermarket… but more about this later.
(Stay tuned for “Panama Culture–What’s It Like? Part 2,” where I will discuss shopping, restaurants, and the service culture.)
Are you planning to move to Panama? I’m happy to answer any questions about the arrival process–just put them in the comments session.
by: LP Wirth