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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.

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