Prologue to South America: Experiencing Panama on the Corredor Sur

by Tyler Brady

When booking a flight to South America, an overnight stop in Panama City can add a significant amount of excitement your trip. This is especially true when the traveler does not speak any Spanish and happens to be flying alone. If this is you, then the following is highly recommended as an unforgettable “adventure”:

Corredor Sur
Corredor Sur. Photo by Tyler Brady

Upon landing at Tocumen International Airport, you now find yourself stepping into Panama City, Panama. The first thing you notice is the intense combination of high heat and high humidity, even late at night. Customs provides an interesting challenge as the official attempts to give you directions in English, while you strain to comprehend what is happening after an exhausting day of travel. Once you pass through customs, finally find your luggage, and pass smoothly through Immigration, you will then find yourself in a strangely organized, yet overwhelmingly chaotic scene. Family members await arrivals, taxi drivers await passengers, tour companies await customers, and they all stare you down as you walk out into the crowd, hoping you’re the one they’re waiting for. 

Without a functional knowledge of Spanish, and since you happen to be alone, sleeping in the airport is probably not the most appealing plan. Thus, it is highly suggested that you book a hotel in the city well in advance. A cheap hotel for the night with a free shuttle is ideal, but also likely to be an “experience”.

Assuming you have done this, and the hotel has sent the shuttle to pick you up (contacting them a week before you travel is a good plan, especially when the hotel you book has received complaints that the shuttle never arrived), now you must force yourself into the mob once again to find the person holding the sign corresponding to your hotel. You will then be asked to wait until all of the passengers heading to the same hotel have arrived so the shuttle only has to make one trip. When the group is set, prepare to be herded outside into the heat and humidity so you can load your luggage into the back of the shuttle. If the shuttle doesn’t look particularly street-worthy, don’t be put off. It’s all part of the “experience”. Likewise, if, within the first few minutes of merging on the Corredor Sur, a car almost runs into the side of the shuttle, remember that this is just part of the adventure you’re having here in Central America. 

However, it is perfectly acceptable to feel somewhat alarmed when your shuttle driver has excessive road-rage. This is indicated by any of the following (especially all of them in one trip): turning his brights on when an oncoming car happens to have theirs on, riding on the bumper of the car in front of the shuttle, and/or racing a taxi through the city after it tries to pass in the right lane. If this happens, you will most likely experience relief when the shuttle finally drops you off at your hotel. Since the driver only speaks Spanish, and you do not, you just logically assume that you have ended up in the right place. The receptionist is most likely bilingual, and the registration process should go smoothly, even if the hotel has no record of your reservation.

When you get up to your room, you may notice that some of the features of the hotel you looked at online are missing. For example, you may be expecting a nice view of the city skyline from your balcony, but instead you find that you have no balcony at all. Rather, you have a cracked window in a rough part of town. Panic is appropriate at this point. Especially if you happen to find a dead cockroach in your sink. Trying to log on to the hotel’s wifi can clarify if the situation is rapidly approaching a crisis-level disaster. If the network name happens to be a hotel name that you most definitely don’t recognize, then you at least know you are in the wrong location. The best solution is to go back down to the reception desk and explain that the shuttle brought you to the wrong hotel. She will politely explain that the shuttle services four other hotels, and that she will kindly call the other hotel to cancel your reservation there. At this point, you have at least saved yourself from paying for a room in a hotel you clearly aren’t going to need anymore. With this accomplished, you will most likely find yourself completely drained, so you should thank the receptionist and ask for a wake-up call. Sadly, she will probably tell you that the only shuttle that will make it to the airport in time for your flight leaves at 5am. As you have no other options, it is in your best interest to agree to a 4am call. 

At promptly 4am, the staff will wake you up and give you an hour to checkout. When you get to the front desk, you will find a small group waiting for the shuttle. Joining them is the logical course of action and soon after, the shuttle arrives. If your hotel happens to be the final stop, and you happen to find yourself boarding the shuttle last, don’t be alarmed if there is no seat for you. Instead, the driver will shove you in, gesture to the floor, and then shut the doors on you. Thus, you spend the next 45 minutes riding on the floor of the shuttle as it takes the beautiful Corredor Sur back to the airport. Of course, the vantage point from near the floor, smashed against the doors, does not exactly provide a nice view. Instead the crowded bus magnifies the heat and humidity already present this early in the morning. Rather than being bitter, just remember that this, too, is part of the “experience”. 

Arrival at the airport probably brings a sense of relief, but prepare yourself because it might be short-lived. When you make it to your gate, you should be able to find a mini-bar selling bottles of water. Buying at least two of the biggest size and chugging them is highly recommended. 

Tocumen is a v-shaped airport, and you finally find yourself waiting at your gate to whichever South American city awaits you. Within the last hour, you may notice that the city you want switches to some other city, such as Cancun. Since this obviously no longer corresponds to your destination city, an examination of the updated screens shows that your gate is now in the opposite wing, most likely as far away from where you are now as possible. Once you have briskly strolled to the other end of the airport and boarded your plane, you can finally relax. 

Congratulations. You have just “experienced” Panama City. While this may sound moderately traumatizing, just think of the stories you’ll have when you get home. Not exactly a standard touristic visit, you have just had an experience that you will never, ever forget. And in a rather weird, irrational way, you will find yourself drawn to the country that you floundered so chaotically in. And if it all works out, you should find a way to return.  To really see Panama. Beyond this “experience” on the Corredor Sur.