July 25, 2015: Heading to Panamá

Dominica and I got exactly zero sleep last night.  We tried “going to bed” sometime around a quarter before two with an alarm set for three (a couple of alarms at least) but between needing to do things that we forgot and there being so little time before the alarms were expected to go off we might have pulled off ten minutes, if that, of sleep which is quite a bit worse than getting none at all.  This is going to be one incredibly rough day for us.

The alarms went off at three so we got out of bed and started getting everything to the door and the kids up.  Liesl was crying, she was so tired.  She did not want to stand up at all.  We had eleven suitcases and bags to get down to the living room to be ready for when Bennie would arrive to pick us up.  We are very thankful that we do not need to drive ourselves this morning, that would be just one more thing to deal with while exhausted.

Bennie was there just before three thirty.  We threw everything in the back of the pickup and got the girls into the back seat.  There was no traffic at all, although there was a big of construction, going up to Bush Intercontinental on the north side of the city.  It is actually rather a long drive to get there, even without any traffic.

Once in the airport we had no problems getting checked right in.  AeroMexico did a good job in the airport.  This is our first time flying internationally from Bush Intercontinental and we were in terminal D which was completely closed while we were there.  Not even vending machines selling bottled water.  Nothing.  Not the best way to have it set up.  Not a single thing opened before it was time for our flight either.

We needed a little something so Dominica went on a really long walk to terminal E and managed to get some coffee for me and some pretzels for the girls.

Our first flight was on time.  We were in the second to last row and had it all to ourselves which was really nice.  It was a small plane, just two seats on either side.  Luciana and I sat on the right hand side and Liesl sat with Dominica on the left.  The plane was great with tons and tons of luggage space so we had no issues at all with all of our bulky stuff which is pretty rough in most situations.

Most everyone slept during the short flight from Houston to Mexico City.  It was a very easy flight.  It even arrived twenty minutes early.  The flight into Mexico City was really cool with us able to really see the mountain ranges and even a volcano.

Once in Mexico we had to disembark from our plane, get our luggage, get stamped into the country and go through customs, then rush to our gate.  It was a little hectic but worked really well.  The airport in Mexico City is great.  Modern, clear and efficient and everyone was really friendly.  Also very handy that Mexico City is not at all a tourist airport but all about business.  Mexico City is not a major tourist destination.

We got to our gate and had about twenty minutes to sit and relax as the flight to Panama City was slightly delayed.  Not much, just a quarter of an hour or so.

The flight from Mexico City to Panama City was a little longer than the first leg and Liesl did not sleep on this trip.  Dominica was sitting in her usual spot on the aisle across from us and I was between the two girls.  Luciana slept much of the way on this leg.

We arrived in Panama City at around two in the afternoon.  It was a wave of heat stepping off of the airplane.  This is a very hot country.  The descent into Panama City Airport was very cool.  Liesl and I were watching out of the left side window and got to see the mountains and then the canal cutting through the jungle, then the city as the plane flew out over the Pacific to get the approach right and a great view of the ships coming in and out of the canal and of downtown and then into the airport.  What a gorgeous city.

We landed, got our bags and got through immigration without too much trouble.  The lines were not bad.  Not nearly as much was available in English as we had thought that there would be.

After getting out of customs we had to figure out what to do about our rental car.  This turned into rather a significant disaster.

Our rental agency was not at the airport.  Dominica checked the paperwork that she had from Expedia and it said that a shuttle would be there to pick us up.  We looked and waited and I ran all over the airport trying to figure this out and there was definitely no shuttle from this rental agency called NÜ Cars.

We tried calling the number for the car rental place and that did not work either (later I figured out that the number was modified by Expedia to resemble an American number complete with country code incorrectly added on to it) so we had no way to contact the rental place and no reason to believe that it even existed as it was not at the airport, had no shuttle and the number provided said that it was not accepting calls.

I ran over to another rental place, Sixt, and asked for help with the phone number assuming that they could not get through either and that we would just rent from them.  They called and managed to get a hold of NÜ since they knew how to modify the given phone number to make sense in Panama.

From their call, there was no question that they did not have a shuttle coming to get us and we were going to have been abandoned there for forever had we followed the directions from Expedia (which also made it clear that there was no reason for us to need to contact the rental company as everything was confirmed – the statement that we did not need to call them was written right on the paperwork!)  We were told that the shuttle would be there in fifteen to twenty minutes to get us and to just wait outside (in the 94 degree heat and humidity so thick that there was water running off of everything.)

We stood outside with a luggage cart and everyone sweating for about forty minutes or longer.  Eventually a guy came up to us with a sign with my name on it.  There was no shuttle, just the tiny car that we had rented that had only barely enough space for us and our luggage and the guy had driven it to pick us up and take us to the rental place.  Luckily this actually worked but it was dangerous and ridiculous and came super close to not working at all.  The trunk was completely full, Dominica and the girls were smooshed in the back and were holding luggage and I was in the front seat so tight that my knees were crushed and I was not safe at all.

The ride to the rental place took at least forty five minutes.  It was insane.  We had to drive all the way from the airport to the far side of the city!

Once we got to the rental car place and were nearly an hour from the airport and had no idea where we were (and this was barely a real business to, it was a shack in the middle of the city with a dusty little lot with a few beat up cars) they tried to hit us with a Gringo tax of 300% what we had agreed to pay for the car.  This was not cool.  Calling Expedia was of no help.  We had tried to reach them earlier about there not being any rental car like they are promised us and their wait time was nearly two hours!  A little too long given the nature of their business.

We were at the rental place probably for an hour either arguing with the people inside or arguing with Expedia.  It was horrible.  Expedia was lying through their teeth trying to get our money and actively conflicting with the information from the rental place in an attempt to extort us.  Thank goodness while this was going on Dominica had reached out to the rental people who had the keys and they had met us at this rental place to drop off the keys for us.

They are local Panamanians and were able to give us options and help us figure out what to do.  We were physically trapped and held hostage – no way to move our stuff or the kids without the rental car, they had figured out to drive us somewhere where we had no choice but to pay anything that they demanded of us.  We’ll know to look out for this particular scam in the future.  We warned that Expedia actively participates in it and sets people up for it.

The rental people actually put us in their car and drove us to a National Car rental place that was about five minutes away.  Thank goodness for well known brands.  We managed to rent a good car, rather than the crappy, old beat up Nissan we were going to get from the other place, at a decent price with drop off right by our resort.  This really changes our plans for this whole month, but at least we did not get scammed.

While we were renting the car the US versus Panama soccer match was on.  A cop at the rental place realized I was an American and was making fun of me while I was there.

After we got the car rented we were ready to get on the road, finally.  It was five thirty.  Originally our plan was to have gotten to our resort no later than six.  Talk about our plans being messed up.

The drive out west to Rio Hato took much longer than we were guessing that it would but the drive was interesting.  We got to cross the very famous bridge over the Panama Canal which was very cool.  It is amazing how Panama City is one of the densest, most vertical cities I have ever seen and how, the instant you cross the bridge, you go from solid high rises to trees and nothingness.

The drive west is a slow go with slightly crazy drivers.  Nothing too bad but you know that you are not in the US or Europe, very different driving from either of those places.

After more than an hour of driving we found the town of Coronado which I had seen on a YouTube show in December.  This is a town famous for catering to Americans and being full of American restaurants and places to buy American products.  We had heard good things about the grocery store here, the Rey, and we were looking for some food so we stopped there as there was really nothing but a few McDonald’s to stop at along the way without stopping at a truly traditional open air Central American shack restaurant – which is probably quite good but we have no idea what to expect and are not about to do that today.

We tried to eat at the McDonald’s but they sell nothing but meat here.  So that didn’t work.  I went into the grocery store and got us some basic supplies to make sure that we are good for a day or two.  Then I ran into the Subway and got us subs to go.  Then back on the road.

From Coronado it was about another half an hour to Rio Hato and the Playa Blanca Resort.  We were able to find it without any problem.  Although the signage was a little hard to follow and at the last second it was like “oh THIS is the turn” and the moment that that happened, in the darkness, it turned out that a herd of cattle was crossing the road.  Had we not been turning into the resort we would have gone right into the side of twenty cows!!! We are certain we would have had a horrendous car accident had that not been our turn right that second.  As it was we were feet from the cows in the darkness.  They were everywhere blocking the highway – the biggest highway in the country with a posted speed limit of 100kph.  People could hit that cattle really fast and have no idea that something was in the road.  There are no lights.

We got into the condo without any problem.  We have our own parking spot, the keys worked, we had no issues at the gate; it was all very simple.  We unloaded all of the luggage and got into the apartment.  It’s a really nice place.  Lots of space, two separate suites one for the girls and one for us.  Big open living space.  Nice balcony.  It is dark but I think that we have ocean views too.

It gets dark very “early” here because it is almost at the equator and at the height of summer the days are only barely longer than twelve hours.  It’s weird.  And the day ends early because we are on Central American Time which is locked to Central Time in the US, but longitudinally we are so far east that we are directly under Rochester, NY.  So the sun sets nearly an hour shifted, here.

We were exhausted.  We did not go outside or do anything.  Pretty much we were all straight off to bed once we had gotten online and made sure that the Internet was working and everything.  Tomorrow we need to go grocery shopping for real and stock up on stuff.  We only have the rental car until Monday midday so we are going to be, more or less, stranded out here without a car most of the time.  That is going to make a lot of things very logistically difficult.