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Friday, December 28, 2012

Traveling Panama's Corredor Norte (North Corridor)

Living right next to the Villa Lucre exit of the Corredor Norte, which is a major toll highway here in the city, is one of the greatest things about living in my area, although an expensive temptation. I use the highway five times a week to take my wife to her work located on the Amador Causeway. From the beginning of the corredor to the end takes you to three toll booths with a total cost of $3.65 each way. That's expensive, but if taken during the right time of the day, will help you avoid a lot of traffic.

Panama has two of these toll highways. The South Corridor (Corredor Sur) is the most popular of the two as it takes you straight into the heart of the city and is a major trail used to get back and forth from the city to some of the suburbs just beyond it, like the high-end neighborhood of Costa del Este or the more local neighborhoods of Parque Lefevre, both with exits that deposit you right into those areas.

What surprises me is the lack of knowledge about the North Corridor, which in my opinion is one of the most peaceful, scenic shortcuts available. A friend of mine, who knows everything about the city, drove me to the Albrook bus terminal one time. I told him I'd pay for the North Corridor. He had to follow my directions as he'd never traveled the Corridor Norte before.

It was strange to me that a guy who knew the city's ins and outs so well was unfamiliar with this highway. Then I realized that the cost of the corridor probably scares some people away. Who wants to travel a highway they're not familiar with, knowing they'll have to pay $1.25 or so even if they mistakenly get off at the wrong exit? It has happened to me. I've gone the wrong way and tried to plead my case at the tollbooth. I only wanted to turn around. I was told that I needed to pay the $.90 at the toll, then make a u-turn and pay $.90 to go through again in the opposite direction. That's almost a two-dollar mistake.

So, today, while driving my wife to work, I took note of all the exits along the Corridor Norte. I plan to fill you in on where the highway will deposit you, that way you can make the decision before getting on the corridor, whether or not it makes sense for you.

We'll start from my area and I'll discuss the highway headed towards Albrook. The first exit/entrance is at Brisas del Golf. You can't go any farther than that. That's where the Corridor Norte begins. Anyone living in Brisas has probably come to know the highway very well, as the traffic in Brisas is horrendous, and the corridor is one of the best ways to eliminate some of that nuisance. Brisas has become a popular lower budget lifestyle option due to some of the more affordable housing costs (you can rent a 2-3 bedroom house for less than $1,000/month) and the easy access to Metro Mall and many other businesses being built in the area (like Pricesmart, supermarkets, banks, etc.).

The lanes with the blue signs are reserved for people who have the PYCSA card, a prepaid card that can be purchased at the tollbooth, but needs to be reloaded with no less than $10 each time. 

When you get on at the Brisas entrance you'll be expected to pay $1.25. As you travel towards Albrook, the first exit you come to is Villa Lucre, the neighborhood where I live. Since Villa Lucre is so close to Brisas, you won't have to pay to exit (you would pay $1.25 if coming from the opposite direction, same as you'd pay if exiting at Brisas).

The next exit you come to takes you on Via Transistmica towards Las Cumbres, an area covered with green mountains and hills. Las Cumbres is where you'll find the Avalon water park that I mentioned in one of my previous posts. This is also the exit you'd want to use if you were planning a trip to the Los Andes shopping center (an outdoor mall with bargain shops) or if you wanted to get to the neighborhood of Villa Zaita. To get to Los Andes you'd need to make a u-turn once you exit the highway, to take you in the opposite direction along Via Transistmica. Heading in that direction will also take you towards San Miguelito.

Next along the corridor you'll find a tollbooth that has tons of traffic in the early morning hours, but usually moves at a steady pace. This tollbooth will cost $1.50 for regular cars with four wheels. The prices go up for buses and larger vehicles with more than two axles.

The next exit will take you towards Colon. This is the direction you'll want to go if headed towards Colon's free-trade zone or Portobelo or Isla Grande.

Next up you'll find two exits that are very close together. The first will take you towards the Centennial Bridge that will cross over the Panama Canal and take you to the interior of the country. The first town on the other side of the bridge is called Arraijan and that's what the sign is labeled with. So head towards Arraijan if you're escaping to Panama's interior.

Immediately after the Arraijan exit you'll see a sign that says UTP Bethania. That's actually the same street that takes you towards the interior, but headed in the opposite direction. This exit is great if you're trying to visit the new Centennial chopping center where Farmacia Arrocha, Taco Bell, and several other new stores are located. UTP stands for Universidad Tecnologica de Panama, so this is the exit you'd take if trying to get to this university. 

It will also take you towards a major throughway here known to Panamanians as Tumbo Muerto (dead tomb, horrible horrible name for a street, I know), which is officially called Ricardo J. Alfaro, where you'll find the Discovery Center store. 

Tumbo Muerto is the street where Immigration, Plaza Edisson (where the Ministerio de Trabajo or work ministry is located), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (an important place to visit during the process of getting your Panamanian driver's license). To get to these important government offices, turn right onto Tumbo Muerto (the street sign probably says Ricardo J. Alfaro) after exiting the corridor. To get to Discovery Center and back towards San Miguelito, and the area where you began your journey (Brisas del Golf), take the second right, which will loop you around and deposit you onto Tumbo Muerto headed in the other direction.

If you stayed on the Corridor Norte, the next exit you'll come upon is the Clayton exit. I apologize for the blurry photos, but remember, I was trying to get my wife to work on time while she snapped photos at high speed. The Clayton exit will take you towards the old Fort Clayton, which is where you'll want to get off if you're trying to get to the U.S. Embassy or the City of Knowledge (both located in Clayton).

If this is your exit, after you get off the corridor, keep going straight until you see the new overpass. Don't go over the overpass, instead veer right and you'll come upon a roundabout that circles below the overpass. If you turn right in the roundabout you'll reach the entrance to Clayton. Go straight across the roundabout and you'll be headed towards the Albrook neighborhood and airport (not the best way to go to the mall), the roundabout exit to the left will take you towards the INAC Museum of Anthropology. Finish the roundabout and you'd be headed back towards the corridor exit and the area called El Dorado.

If you take the overpass instead of veering right down towards the entrance to Clayton, you'll go straight to the Albrook Mall. However, if you're on the corridor and want to go straight to the mall, there is an Albrook Mall exit, so stay on the highway.

If you'd stayed on the Corridor Norte and passed the Clayton exit, your next exit would be El Dorado, which will take you to the same street we were just talking about, but you'll be headed in the opposite direction, straight into the El Dorado area, where you'll find the El Dorado shopping center.

The next exit is called Avenida Juan Pablo II. I honestly have no idea where this exit takes you. I think it's just one of the back roads that takes you toward many of the shipping companies (which you may use when bringing your belongings to Panama). I'm not positive on that though.

The next exit is for Ave. Martin Sosa and Ave. Central, which is a back street that will take you to the Albrook Mall. You can use it if you know your way around well enough and if you want to skip the $.90 toll coming up. If the charge doesn't bother you and you're on your way to the mall, just stay on the corridor. The exit for Albrook Mall is coming up.

The final toll for the Corridor Norte is $.90. Just outside the tollbooth is another exit for Juan Pablo II and Via La Amistad. I'm not sure where that exit takes you. I think it's just the back road that loops around Albrook Mall and takes you back towards the warehouse/shipping company area.

And there's the Albrook Mall exit I promised you. This exit takes you right into the mall parking lot. This is also the exit you'd want to take if you're trying to get to the Albrook Bus Terminal. You can either gain access to the terminal from the mall, or go a little farther on the corridor and you'll find an exit that allows you to loop around and drive right up to the terminal. If you're being dropped off by someone, this is probably the route you'd want to take. The Albrook Bus Terminal is where you'll catch buses to anywhere else in the country (outside of Panama City). 

If you stay on the Corridor until it finally reaches its end, you'll see something like the photo above. Be careful because where this highway ends is a giant roundabout. Cars coming from the left are usually speeding around the circle, so pay close attention as you enter the loop.

Once you enter the loop you will immediately have two options. Look at the photo above. This is what you'll see once you've entered the roundabout. If you veer right and follow that red car, you'll reach the Albrook area. At the first traffic light, make a right and you'll find the entrance to the Albrook Airport, which is a small airport used mostly for flights to the interior of the country. In that area you'll find several banks, a Deli Gourmet (which is a great place for lunch, like a small Whole Foods), and a Rey supermarket. 

Follow that white bus in front of you and keep going around the circle if you want to head towards the Balboa/La Boca area, which will take you past the Babloa Port (where containers are taken off of the ships) and eventually towards the Amador Causeway (a great place to go bicycling or rollerblading, the home of the Figali Convention Center, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the Biodiversity Museum).

As you near the end of the roundabout, carefully (cars are usually speeding into the roundabout from behind you) make your way all the way to the right lane, to head towards the area I just mentioned (Balboa/Amador). If you kept left and headed straight at this point, you'd have two choices. You could either head back around towards the Albrook Mall and back onto the Corredor Norte, or you could head back towards the city by taking the route that leads to Ave. Omar Torrijos.

Wow...I feel like a very confusing tour guide. Did you get all that? Hopefully you were able to sort of see it all clearly in your mind. I'm hoping that it will squash some of those fears of the Corridor Norte, so more people can enjoy the scenic (but overpriced) shortcut.

If I've missed something or you have anything to add, please do so in the comments section. Also, if you find any of my posts helpful or interesting, please share on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other social media sites by clicking on their buttons at the bottom of this post. If you click on any of the posts, so that they open up as their own page, you'll see more sharing options (like Pinterest and Sumbleupon).

Thanks for reading,


Friday, December 21, 2012

Going to the movies in Panama

Yesterday afternoon I made the mistake of taking all four of my kids to the theater to see The Hobbit. The girls, 8 and 10 years old, were fine, but my twin 4 year olds drove me nuts. Three hours, three potty breaks, and twenty-five "Can we go home now's" later and I was about to pull my hair out. While I was standing in line, ready to pay, I realized the theater's web site lied, and the non-3D, English version of the movie, started a half-hour later than expected. As I checked the sign over my head, I thought, "Hmm, I wonder how many people don't know what to look for on these signs?" So let's talk about that and some other helpful hints for visiting a Panamanian movie theater, referred to as a "ciné" here.

Movie listing at Cinépolis at Metromall

Most adult movies, or anything rated above "G," are in English with Spanish subtitles. Most, not all. So it's important that you know how to figure this out. The first time I visited Panama I got stuck sitting through a movie in Spanish...and it sucked. Looking at the sign in the photo above, you'll notice that off to the right hand side, all of the movies have either "SUB" or "DOB" next to them. SUB is short for subtitulos, meaning the movie will be in English with Spanish subtitles. DOB is short for doblado, meaning the movie will be dubbed in Spanish (and it won't have English subtitles). Popular movies will usually have both options, like you see for The Hobbit. 

You may have also noticed that some of the movie titles on the sign are in Spanish. This doesn't necessarily mean the movie is dubbed in Spanish. For example, "Fin Del Turno," is the gritty cop movie "End of Watch" with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Even though the title is listed in Spanish, if you look to the right you'll see that it says "SUB," so it's in English, with Spanish subtitles. 

Spanish movie titles crack me up because they're so literal. For example, the movie Titanic would probably be the Spanish translation of "A big boat that sinks" or "Love on a boat." The comedy movie The Hangover was translated "Qué Paso Ayer?" which means, "What Happened Yesterday?"

One thing that sucks, if you have small children, is that it's really hard to find a cartoon with spoken English. Almost all of the cartoons are in Spanish. Sometimes, at the Cinépolis in Multiplaza Mall, the cartoons playing in the VIP theater are in English. This only happens every once in awhile, and it's expensive. Something else you'll need to get used to is the use of subtitles. If you're watching a movie in English, it will have Spanish subtitles at the bottom of the screen. You'll just have to learn to live with it.

Cinépolis at Metromall

The entry free is still extremely cheap compared to U.S. standards. I'll never forget the first time I took my daughters to see a movie here. It was a Wednesday night, which is discount movie night here. I had no idea. I told the lady I needed to pay for 1 adult and 2 children. It came out to just over $6. I had to tell her again how many people I was paying for, sure that the $6 was only going to cover my ticket. She understood me fine. Each ticket came to $2.25. I was blown away. When we lived in Chicago, I paid over $60 (parking, entry, and snacks) to take the same two little girls to see Iron Man. With snacks and everything I probably didn't pay more than $15 that night in Panama. 

The two main movie theaters in Panama are Cinemark and Cinépolis. Most of the malls in Panama have one of the two located within. I'll use the Cinépolis website to give you some of the prices. The Cinépolis in Multiplaza Mall has a VIP section (more comfortable chairs and food delivered to you). The most you'll pay in Panama is $15 per ticket, but that's for a 3D movie in the VIP section. A regular VIP seat will cost $13, only $7.50 for seniors over the age of 60, and $6.50 for children. These are the fancy seats though, folks. You can pay much much less here to see a movie. 

A regular adult ticket at Cinépolis is only $4.25 and only $2 for seniors over the age of 60. The cheap Wednesday tickets I mentioned before only cost $2.50 per adult. Oh, and if seniors over the age of 60 get to the movie before 3 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, they only pay $1.75. You can't beat that. Prices vary from that point though, most having to do with 3D and matinees. Since 3D is so popular right now, I'll just mention that the cost of an adult ticket for a 3D movie on a Friday-Sunday evening would be $7.25. Still not bad, considering a regular adult ticket in Chicago cost about $10 when I was there. The prices at Cinemark, the other popular theater in Panama, are about the same.

The concession stands at Panamanian theaters aren't much different from what you're used to in the States or anywhere else. You can buy individual items or combos. The prices have risen recently. While food is still less expensive than what you may be used to paying, I miss the old prices. $5 used to get you a large popcorn and two sodas. The photo below shows the current prices.

As you can see, a large popcorn and two sodas now costs $7.50. So the total for two adults going to see a regular movie, on a Friday night, while sharing a large popcorn and each getting their own soda, would come out to $16 total. That's a cheap date. As long as she doesn't ask to go upstairs to Benihana's after (only at Multiplaza). One of the best things about the theaters here, not for me since I'm diabetic, is the option to have caramel popcorn instead of regular. You can even mix the two. That's cool.

To help you plan your cheap date, I've added the links to the two most popular theaters here in Panama. Just make sure you double check the info when you arrive at the theater. A couple of times I've planned to see a certain movie, then found out it was only available in VIP or 3D, or even worse, Spanish, after arrived at the theater with the kids.

You'll find Cinépolis theaters in Multiplaza Mall and Metromall. Cinemark can be found at Multicentro Mall, Albrook Mall, and at Los Pueblos. Other theaters, such as Extreme Planet along Avenida Balboa do exist, but they're not as popular. 

Go to  to check the listings at Cinepolis. To get movie info you'll want to change the "Ciudad" to "Panama, Panama" in the scroll down menu at the top. Then click "Ver Horarios." 

For Cinemark, go to this website:  Here you will need to choose which theater in Panama you're interested in. Then click on "Ver Horarios." 

Thanks for reading,


Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas shopping in Panama

I was out today, driving through the rain soaked streets, on a mission to take photos of some of the best places to shop here in Panama. For those of you already living here, if you've never ventured out to some of the smaller neighborhoods, you may have never come across some of these hidden treasures. Two years ago I was in search of art supplies for my wife. She'd mentioned how she missed painting, so I thought I'd surprise her and pick up an easel, some paints, and other supplies. I had a hell of a time figuring out where to go to get some of this stuff. I asked around, and finally, someone told me about this place called Artec, located in San Miguelito. As of right now, their website is still "coming soon." Here's the link though:

If you need to pick up pet supplies or even buy a pet for someone, Melo is a place you need to check out. These are located all over the city. I found one right down the street from Artec, but I've also seen them in the Los Pueblos outdoor shopping area, in Metromall, and just about everywhere else around the city. Locating a Melo wouldn't be a challenge. Their website is

If you have a family member who is into sports or music, on Cincuentenario (hope I spelled that correctly), right across the street from Multiplaza Mall and right next to Niko's Cafe, is an El Deportista sporting goods store that is combined with a La Nota music store. There you can find everything from soccer and baseball equipment to guitars and sheet music. Here's their website in English:

One of my favorite places in the city (or its surrounding areas) is the Discovery Center located in what I believe is Condado del Rey, which you'll find on your way to El Dorado if you're traveling down Tumbo Muerto (Dead Tomb is a horrible name for a street). At Discovery Center you'll find a little bit of everything. I think I like it because it reminds me of Walmart. You can find hardware items, fishing gear, pet supplies, toys, bicycles, ceiling fans, dishes, pots & pans...just about anything you can think of. I've heard people complain that it's a little overpriced, but I bought a punching bag (a heavy bag) for less than $40. That's pretty cheap. I couldn't find a website for Discovery Center. 

Another store that's similar to a Discovery Center, but actually has a full-size supermarket, furniture, and a much larger clothing selection, is El Machetazo. El Machetazo is a great place to put on this list because it really is one-stop shopping. Plus, you'll find El Machetazo outside of Panama City. A brand new one just opened up in Coronado. I bought a Blu-Ray player at the San Miguelito store, which is going through a major renovation. Speaking of electronics, other popular electronics stores in Panama are Multimax (, Audiofoto (, and Hometek ( All three of these can be found in many of the city's shopping centers and malls. 

Not that Victoria's Secret is anything secret, but there is one located in Panama, and it's a great place to pick up affordable smell goods for any lady friends. I stopped by the branch in Multiplaza Mall today and found that they have a Christmas deal going on right now. All lotions are 3 for $30 or 5 for $45. 

If you have an avid reader in the family, finding books in English might be a bit of a challenge here. I recently bought a Kindle because I was tired of paying so much for each book and having such a small variety to choose from. I've found a few books in English at Riba Smith, which is the supermarket here with the most imported foods and will be the closest thing to what you're used to in the States and in Canada. The selection is very limited though. There's also a place on Via España called Exedra Books which I've heard carries some books in English. Farmacia Arrocha, some of them, may have a small selection. El Hombre de la Mancha is one of the most popular book stores here and is found in nearly all of the malls. I'm not sure about Multicentro, but I've seen it in Albrook, Multiplaza, and Metro Mall. This store usually has a decent selection, but is kind of pricey. If you can afford it, just buy your friend/family member a Kindle. They'll love you for it. To go to El Hombre de la Mancha's website, click here

If you know someone who likes to spend time at the shooting range, or might want to pick something up from the gun shop, I noticed this place today when I was dropping my kids off at school in downtown Panama City. It's kind of hard to explain where this place is located, but it's close to Avenida Balboa, right behind the bright blue building with the X's. The phone number is in the picture, so I'm sure if you give them a call they can explain it a little better.

Farmacia Arrocha is the closest thing to a CVS/Walgreens here in Panama. I think it's much better actually. It's probably my favorite convenient place to shop here. You can find an Arrocha almost everywhere. I live in Villa Lucre, and the one in my area is usually uncrowded and very clean. It's a good place to pick up make-up, perfume, toys, medicine, school supplies, etc. The branch at Los Pueblos is probably the best one for toys. The Los Pueblos branch is also where my wife goes to pick up her Clinique products. Not all Arrochas carry Clinique apparently. The large branch on Calle 50 is another good one to visit. You can go to for more info.

The closest thing to a Toys R Us here is the Felix Juguetes located in the Los Pueblos outdoor shopping center, right across the street from Metro Mall on Avenida Domingo Diaz or what some people consider Via Tocumen. Half the store is dedicated to toys, the other half is an outlet store, with discount clothing. Click here to go to the Felix Juguetes website: If you don't want to travel all the way to Los Pueblos, all of the Felix B. Maduro stores carry toys and video games, the selection just isn't as large as it is at the Felix toy store. 

If you need to pick up power tools, other household appliances, or hardware supplies, Do It Center is like the Home Depot of Panama. I go to the one down the street from my house all the time. They have a nice garden section and even cary exercise equipment and some sporting goods. Do It Center can be found in most malls and shopping centers in and around the city. Check out their website here:

Of course there are tons of other places to shop in Panama City and its surrounding neighborhoods. All of the malls have anchor stores. Felix B. Maduro is kind of the high end department store here. I wouldn't say it's a the Bloomingdale's or Neiman Marcus level, but possibly equal to a Nordstrom or Dillard. Steven's is another that can be found in most malls. It's kind of the middle level store here. Probably the closest thing to a Macy's. If you're looking for high-end jewelry, there's a Tiffany & Company, Cartier, Montblanc, Bvlgari, and other luxury stores located in Multiplaza Mall. 

More affordable anchor stores, mostly found in the lower end malls like Metro Mall, are stores such as El Titan, El Costo, and Dorians. These would be the JC Penney, Sears, Marshalls, and even much lower chains of Panama. And don't be fooled. The Saks you see in Panama has nothing to do with 5th Avenue. 

All of these stores are bargain shopping, places where you find T-shirts for as low as $1.99 and blue jeans for as low as $5.99, but be careful, check the clothes carefully as it's common to find stains or small tears on the super-cheap digs.  Well...I hope this list of stores helps you out with your Christmas shopping. I'm nearly done and can't wait to finally finish and stay the heck out of this insane traffic. 

Thanks for reading.



Hey everybody, I've never mentioned this before, but for those of you who may have caught on, I was the Editor of an e-zine called the Panama Letter for a "retire overseas" publisher based here in Panama. I'm no longer working for the company, but I plan to keep you informed on all things Panama here in my blog. I've got big plans for the future, something I'm very excited about, and I'll fill you in as soon as things are more concrete. Thanks to anyone who read the e-zine while I was writing it, and a special thanks to all of you checking out this blog. Chris

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Panama gears up for the holidays

Whew, December is a whirlwind month in this country. I made the mistake of trying to stop by a couple of stores yesterday at around noon. This was a bad idea for two reasons. First, yesterday was the Panamanian Mother's Day. So outside of every supermarket and shopping center, vendors were selling stuffed animals, balloon hearts, roses, and chocolates. People were making a mad dash through the aisles, stuffing their carts with all the traditional Panamanian party foods, such as rice, guandu (pigeon peas), potatoes for potato salad, jars of sangria, ham, and tamales.

A nice turnout for Mother's Day at the Powers' home

Men were rushing through the Farmacia Arrocha, a local pharmacy that's a lot like a CVS/Walgreens in the States, taking advantage of the 20% off perfumes sale they had going on and trying to decide if buying the special woman in their life a new vacuum or iron is really such a good idea. It's not by the way. In a shopping mall parking lot that's usually fairly empty, I couldn't find a single spot, and this was at midday. 

3 Generations of Mama

The second reason trying to get out and about was such a bad idea was the fact that some Panamanian workers had just received their decimo, which is also called the 13th month. All Panamanians get an extra month of pay that is divided into three payments throughout the year. So they receive an extra 1/3rd of their salary payment in April, in August, and in December. This shows up right on time for the holidays.

In a part of the country that is hot and humid all year long, including Christmas season, sometimes it's hard to get in the Christmas spirit. I grew up in South Florida, so I'm used to being able to head to the beach on Christmas Eve, but having lived in Anchorage, Alaska, Chicago, Illinois, and Columbus, Ohio, I do miss cold winters. Sipping hot chocolate with candy cane stirrers isn't the same in 95 degree weather.

Panama may not have Chicago's Magnificent Mile with its trees lit up to put you instantly in the holiday mood, but Panama City's Calle 50 does its best to make the time of year special. Already, early in December, the ASSA insurance company, and Global Bank have their exterior decorations up. Inside the F&F Tower, also know as the Revolution Tower (or the big twisty building), a large tree and some elves await visitors at the lobby entrance. 

So while Panama gears up for the holidays, I'll keep you informed on some of the cool things that go on here. And keep your eyes open for a special post, where I'll fill you in on some great places to pick up gifts in Panama City.

Thanks for reading,


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Current gas prices in Panama City, Panama

Here are the gas prices on 12/5/12 in the Marbella area of Panama City. 
The $3.83 is diesel, $3.71 is for 91 octane and $3.90 is for 95 octane.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Check out the Special Panama Moments page

I created a separate page on this blog just for special moments my wife, Marlene, and I have captured in Panama. I'll start posting these photos on the new page, found at the top, in the tab that says "Special Panama Moments." I just want to show some of the highlights of living in such a beautiful country. Some times you have to just stop and take it all in.

You know you're making great choices...
when your 10-year-old stops to reflect on the beauty surrounding her. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving in Panama

I'm writing this on the Monday following Thanksgiving, so this isn't a "What to do for Thanksgiving" post, but more about how Panamanians I know have begun to embrace our holiday, and some have even made it their own.

This year, prior to the holiday, Panamanian friends and family of mine started calling my mother-in-law, asking if we'd be celebrating this year. They were more excited than I was. We weren't planning to make a big deal out of it the way we did last year, when I put together a bunch of games for the kids and we had a lot of activities going on. We just wanted to have a small get together with family. My mother-in-law makes an out of this world turkey, so I begged her to make the turkey again this year. She didn't disappoint. In addition to the turkey, she made a ham (she makes an amazing ham too), potato salad, arroz con guandu (rice with pigeon peas), and even desserts like pesada de nance (a pudding-like dessert made with a fruit called nance) and tres leches (a moist, three-milk cake).

I had too much going on to add anything to the meal. Plus, last year, no one seemed to like my stuffing and green bean casserole. I plan to bring it back next year though. Hahahaha (evil laugh).

Since I didn't have this blog last year, I thought I'd put a photo of everyone who participated in last year's dinner. It was a great turn out. We had a lot of fun, played a lot of games, and even danced.

Last year's celebration

This year saw many of the same family members at our house. This time, the night was filled with kids playing, my daughters and their cousin putting on a musical performance under their new stage name The Chica Girls, and conversation filled with the usual gossip. A new annual tradition of "Asking Chris why he doesn't speak Spanish yet" was well underway. I tried my best to dodge questioning by introducing the family to my new book, but it didn't work. I was ridiculed most of the night. 

Gloria's out-of-this-world turkey (before it hits the oven)

Another tradition that my Panamanian friends and family have really started to appreciate, is the "Saying thanks for something before the meal" part of Thanksgiving. Usually I start it off, thanking everyone for coming to our house and enjoying the holiday with us. I say everything I'm thankful for, then it goes around the table. Most of it I don't understand since it's in Spanish, but my wife fills me in the best she can. Even the kids get involved. It's a lot of fun and it gives Panamanians, people who are by nature very religious and thankful people, an opportunity to vocally announce all of the things they're thankful for that year. 

This year's celebration

One thing that cracks me up each year, is the making of the potato salad. When the potatoes, carrots, corn, and eggs are being mixed in with the mayonnaise, no one's allowed to speak near it. My wife was doing the stirring this year when I walked into the kitchen and approached. She quickly threw her hands up to warn me to stay away. I had no idea what she was talking about. She turned her head and said, "No talking near the potato salad."

The first time this happened, I thought, "What the hell are they talking about? Is this some sort of religious thing? You can't disrespect the potato salad? Should I take my hat off around it too?" Then she explained to me that when you talk, spit could fly into the potato salad, and any saliva would instantly make it go bad. Makes sense. But if that's the case, why do we talk around any of the food? I'd rather not accidentally get spit in my cereal either. But I've learned...don't say a word when potatoes are in the mix.

A delicious 2012 Thanksgiving dinner

Schools in Panama have started to celebrate the American holiday (at least some of the schools). My daughters go to a Panamanian school (they do have English class) and I was surprised to hear that they were going to have a Thanksgiving party. They go all out here though. One of my daughters was required to bring a baked chicken and paper plates. My other daughter was asked to bring potato salad and plastic cups. That's a full meal. Whatever happened to chips, cookies, soda, and maybe pizza, like when I was in school? 

With the holiday now over, Christmas planning has already begun. I can't wait to get together with family for that holiday too. We have a blast no matter the occasion. 

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Keeping in touch in Panama

Leaving home, whether it be the U.S., Canada, somewhere in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, is a scary thing. Especially when you've heard that the place you're considering basing yourself out of is considered a Third World Country. Is Panama a Third World Country? In some ways it still is. Definitely in some of the small towns in Panama's interior. However, it's nothing like you might expect.

Infrastructure is top notch in Panama City, and in many other towns. The ability to connect with the rest of the world is taken very seriously here, especially since Panama is considered the Hub of the Americas, and an important business center for all the world. It is, after all, where the Panama Canal is located.

The question comes up all the time, "Can you keep in touch with the rest of the world?" or "How would I talk to my family without spending a fortune if I moved to Panama?" It's easy. I've been doing it for years now. In fact, it's cheaper to talk to people in the States from here in Panama than it is for people in the U.S. to reach out to other countries.

So what are the top ways to keep in touch in Panama?

1.  Skype - Skype and other VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) services, like Magic Jack, make chatting with family very easy.  Skype is free as long as you're talking with other people who have Skype. I meet with my mom every Sunday at 8 p.m. The kids have gotten to know their grandmother (sadly I know) over the Internet. They talk to her about everything and it's as if she's sitting right in front of them. In the photo below you'll see how we handled my daughter's birthday. We called up my mom, carried two pies (my daughter wanted pie instead of cake) and sang happy birthday with my mom in front of the computer. She loved it and was so glad she could be a part of the celebration from all the way in San Diego, California.

Internet service in Panama is high speed and reliable. I've visited small towns like Aguadulce, where their town center is set up for WiFi. You can literally go to the gazebo at the center of town, open your laptop, and Skype with family in the U.S. I was in El Valle, a mountain town, last weekend. I was in the jungle, climbing a mountain called The Sleeping Indian. My wife was wearing the wrong shoes. In her defense, flip flops were fine for taking a dip in the waterfall. As usual, I say crazy things like, "Hey let's climb that mountain and get photos of the town below." So while she was resting about halfway up the mountain, I climbed to the top, and wrote her on my Blackberry from the top of the mountain. That's how well wired in most of this country is.

2.  Whatsapp - For anyone who has a Smart Phone or Blackberry, a program called Whatsapp allows you to chat with people back home as if they were right here in Panama with you. All you have to do is download the program to your phone (it's free), which can usually be done right from your phone, then tell your family member to download it to their phone. It's like text messaging, except it's unlimited and you don't get charged extra for going over. Here in Panama, I pay only $10 plus tax per month to have unlimited internet and Blackberry chat. I pay for talk time on my phone separately (I just buy the $5 prepaid minutes since I don't talk on the phone very often).

The great thing about cell phone service here, which differs from back in the States, is you only pay for calls you make. So if someone calls me, I don't get charged for the call. I remember having AT&T back home. Most of my bill consisted of charges from people calling me. I rarely call anyone. So if you have your phone set up like I do, you'll only pay that $10 per month and can use Whatsapp all you want. I'm not sure if your friends or family from the States will be charged on their end. They'll have to check into it.

3.  PO Box companies - The Panamanian mail service is unreliable. I've sent things from the States by U.S. mail, and it never showed up here. For that reason, as soon as I moved here, I set up a PO Box. It used to be that Mailbox Etc. was the main choice for expats. I'm sorry, but Mailbox Etc., in my opinion, price gouges the hell out of people. That is, unless they've changed their prices recently. When I first visited one of their branches, they quoted me some sort of twenty something dollar monthly charge, plus a charge if you went over like two pounds. I don't receive mail every month, and if I did, I imagine it would be easy to go over two pounds (I could be wrong about the specifics, so no hate mail please). Maybe there's some sort of insurance they provide that makes it worth it? I don't know. I'm not a visitor here. I live here permanently, so I'm looking for the best deal.

What's great about setting up one of these boxes here in Panama, is you're given a U.S. mailing address, usually somewhere in South Florida. That way, when you're shopping online, you just enter this address and your items are shipped to that Miami address. Then, the company you're using, will bring the items to Panama.

Shopping around I found a few other companies. I use one called Panama Air Facility, which has several branches. I use the newer one in Costa del Este. I pay no monthly fee, but pay around $1.60 per pound for letters and $2.60 per pound for packages. Or something like that. There's also some sort of 5% customs fee which you'll be charged at any of the companies. Panama Air Facility is okay. I've had my complaints. They're supposed to call or email me every time something comes in, but they don't always. I picked up letters that had been in my box for 3 months one time. They'd never called me. So I suppose if you pop your head in frequently you wouldn't have a problem.

Panama Air Facility website is

A couple of other companies you can check out, which I don't personally know much about, but I have friends who've used both companies and have no complaints, are Airbox Express Panama and Miami Express. A friend of mine hates the company I use and swears by Airbox Express. You really have to shop around and see what works best for you. Plus, you probably want to find one of these companies that has a location near where you're living or where you plan to live. For example, out in the beach town of Coronado, there's a Mailbox Etc. That's convenient for the people living out there, many of which can probably afford to pay the monthly charge. It's worth it to them to use that company.

Here are the websites for Airbox Express and Miami Express, both of which are in English.

Airbox Express Panama:

Miami Express:

4. Telechip International - Okay, there are many other phone cards you can use, but this one is easy to purchase and is reliable. If you go into any Super 99 or El Rey supermarket, or maybe even El Machetazo (I'm not sure), you can pick one of these cards up at the cash register. Just tell the cashier: "Dame una tarjeta de Telechip Internacional por favor. De cinco balboas." You just said, "Give me a Telechip International card please. Of 5 dollars." Any Spanish speakers, don't make fun of my gringo Spanish. I'm trying here.

I started off buying the $10 card, but I could never use all the minutes before the expiration date and I'd end up losing minutes, so I started buying the $5 card. For $5 I get something like 3 hours of talk time. I've used this card to call my dad, my mom, and the Department of Veterans Affairs back home. As I said before, I don't talk on the phone all that often, so even using all of the minutes allotted on the $5 card is hard for me. Here's a photo of the Telechip International card:

With the 4 options I've listed above you should have no problem chatting live with your family on the Internet, chatting with people over your Smart Phone or Blackberry, picking up mail and packages, or making phone calls from your home phone. Sending packages is something I haven't mastered. Maybe that's a service Maibox Etc. provides. Panama Air Facility doesn't. If you need to send money you can use Western Union or Moneygram here, but I'm not sure about sending packages. People have told me they use the Panama Mail system to send mail to the U.S. and they've had no problem with that. I suppose that's because they're actually dropping mail off at the post office and from there it's loaded onto a plane and taken straight to the U.S. FedEx and DHL are here, but it's not cheap. The last time I sent an envelope with forms (maybe 10 sheets of paper) I paid somewhere around $55.

A lot of people, both expats and Panamanians, use traveling friends to send and receive packages and mail. Usually, if someone is headed to the States, they'll ask if anyone needs anything while they're there, or if they need them to take something to the States with them.

If anyone knows of an easy and inexpensive way to send packages to the U.S., let me know.

Thanks again for reading,


Friday, November 9, 2012

An American author in Panama

Hey everybody,

I'm shamelessly promoting my book again. Free right now--Mirror Images Book 1: The Darkness of Man is a love story mixed with maniacs & monsters.

From today, Nov. 9,  'till Tuesday, Nov. 13, you can pick up a free copy for your Kindle at Amazon. Click here to check it out

Here's the book cover, front and back. To buy a copy in print for $11.99, click here:

All reviews are greatly appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to read this and I hope you enjoy the book.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Living local in Panama

Hey everybody,

I was driving home today when a sight caught my eye that catches it every time I enter the neighborhood. I live in an area of Panama City (or the outskirts of) called Villa Lucre. Directly behind my house, and I mean right behind it, is an area called Samaria, that is known for being kind of a not-so-desirable place to live. Some parts of Villa Lucre are amazing, with homes that cost half a million dollars. I live in the more local part of town. Driving into my part of the neighborhood, you head down a hill, and out in front of you is the picture below. Remember, that's not my neighborhood...that's "beyond the wall."

Every time I see this, I instantly think of Kung Fu Panda, and Po struggling to make it all the way to the  top of the steps. Can you imagine being a kid in that neighborhood? You'd be dodging any elderly person around, knowing that at some point, someone would say, "Would you mind helping me carry this 20 pound bag of rice up to my front porch at the top of the stairs?"

I thought the priest from the Exorcist movie had a long fall down the steps. Imagine if that split pea soup spitting possessed girl lived at the top of these steps.

So...that's the neighborhood behind my house. Also, directly behind mi casa, is some sort of disco/nightclub. I've gotten used to hearing the blasting reggaeton (latin reggae), salsa, tipico, and bachata that wafts through my sealed shut windows until the wee hours of the morning. Seriously, I don't know who's still dancing at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, but someone needs to put that poor thing out of its misery. I imagine cowboys with six shooters firing at somebody's feet and hollering, "I don't care if it's 9 p.m. or 9 a.m., you gonna dance boy!" Really...9 a.m.?

It's hard not to wiggle your toes along to the music when you're trying to force yourself to sleep...especially when the sheep you're counting are swaying their hips and spinning each other around to salsa's greatest hits.

I'm not trying to scare you. That's just my neighborhood. On the bright side, I think it's really cool how the people in my neighborhood get along with each other. I'm not involved in that, but that's just because I don't speak Spanish well enough (I know...I need to learn). Many of the adults in my neighborhood get together at the center of the street, drag tables and chairs out onto the sidewalk, and gossip while drinking beer and sangria. The kids play in the street all around them. Many of the boys play soccer or futbol in the street, quickly moving out of the way for each passing car.

If you're not living in an all American community, or mostly expat retirement hot spot, and you find yourself in a more local neighborhood, like I'm in, here are a few more things for you to know.

1.  Garbage collection. Take a look at the picture below. Trash is usually placed in these metal baskets, which fill up quickly, meaning you're forced to put your trash bags on the sidewalk or grass below them. That means the stray animals are going to rip through it. No matter how clean I try to keep the front of my house, something always tears through my garbage bag and pulls my trash out onto the street.

2.  Something else you'll see in a lot of the local Panama City neighborhoods are "for rent" or "se alquila" signs. However, look closely, because most of these have nothing to do with real estate. I found this out when I drove up and down every single street in San Antonio, Brisas del Golf, Cerro Viento, and Villa Lucre, the four realistic living options that aren't too dangerous. Rent in these areas can usually be found for around $800 per month, give or take a hundred bucks. Some will argue with me that a couple of these areas aren't great to live in, but that's truth if you're comparing them to the high-rent district of Marbella or live in the old town of Casco Viejo. 

If you're on a tight budget, don't care about life on the beach, and want to live like Panamanians, these are the 4 places real estate experts in the city will send you towards. Especially if you can't afford more than $1,000 per month...and you want to live in a single-family home. 

Anyway, I'm rambling, so I drove up and down every street in these four neighborhoods, trying to find "for rent" signs. I found very few. Most rentals in town are found through word of mouth. These "for rent" signs, like the one in the photo below, are for chairs and tables. I've mentioned that Panamanians love to party, right? They do. That's one of the great things about living here. Panamanians are laid back and love to unwind. So many Panamanian entrepreneurs have started renting out cheap plastic chairs and tables. They'll drop them off the day of the party and pick them up the morning after. So get used to seeing these signs around.

Mariachi bands for hire and d.j.'s for hire are a couple of other signs you'll see around most small neighborhoods. 

3.  Bars on the windows. Don't be frightened when you visit Panama and see many of the homes with bars on their front windows or around the properties. Some homes even have crushed beer bottles glued to the tops of the walls that surround their home. Seeing this isn't a sure sign of a bad neighborhood. It's just an old-school security system. Most people can't afford to have a high-tech security company monitor their home's alarm system, so instead, they put up these bars, or crushed glass, or even razor wire. 

I like to think of it as extra protection against a zombie attack. The bars would be great in that situation. Unless the zombie was inside...then that would suck. 

Something to think about, if you find yourself in one of these homes. Many times the front door is barred up as well, and you'll have a key to get in and out of it. It might sound like common sense, but trust me, sometimes you're in a rush, and it might slip your mind. Make sure anyone staying home has a key. I've rushed out of the house before and found out that my mom-in-law had my wife's key for some reason. So if there had been a fire or something, she would have been stuck in the house. Imagine bars on all the windows, and you can't get out the front or back doors. Not a good scenario.

4.  Learn your area's emergency contact numbers. 911 does exist here...kind of. It's the number for an ambulance service. The cops have their own numbers. 104 is the general number that will connect you to the police, no matter where you are in the city. However, if you want a rapid response, it's a good idea to know the number for your neighborhood. I saw the sign in the photo below posted at the Rey supermarket in Villa Lucre. As you can see, the bomberos or fire department can be reached by dialing 103. 104 is the police. SINAPROC is the national civil service department, which I believe handles natural disasters and things of that nature. The other numbers are pretty self explanatory. So...looking at the photo below would give you the contact numbers you may need, but again, find out the number to your local police station. They'll have a direct number and it's a good idea to know it. You never know when your wife/husband might find a tiny snake in the bathroom that she/he claims is humongous.

That's all I can think of for now. I'm sure I'll come up with some other neighborhood tips for a later post. Have a good Wednesday!