Let’s Go Exploring! Panama City: A Nerdtastic Paradise

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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The nerdgasms started before the wheels of the plane even hit the ground.

I frantically scanned the scenery below us, wishing for the first time I’d brought binoculars, trying to find the attraction that brought us to this city. A city that we knew almost nothing about, save for the fact that it held the one thing that made our nerdtastic hearts go pitter patter and our graphing calculators overheat.

An engineering marvel that took 55,000 workers, 17 years, $400 Million USD, 5600 lives and a whole SHITLOAD of dynamite to build:

The Panama Canal.

Ask any engineer what they think about the Panama Canal, and if their eyes don’t immediately light up, you know they’re a fraud.

Because any nerd whose mind isn’t immediately blown by watching a 60,000-ton ship pass through a set of locks created by blasting all the way through the earth and joining two oceans needs to immediately have their nerd-badge revoked.

As soon as we arrived at the visitor center, I practically shoved my credit card in the salesclerk’s face, screaming at them to “TAKE MY MONEY JUST TAKE IT!”

She barely batted an eye, swiped my card and waved us through, and that’s when I noticed the entire line of people were behind us doing the exact same thing.

As luck would have it, as soon as we got in, a massive ship filled with Maersk containers was passing through, and we quickly grabbed front rows seats in the bleachers to watch.

You know this is serious stuff when they build bleacher seating just so you can enjoy your ship-watching experience in comfort.

After freaking out everyone within a 10-meter radius with our high-pitched giggling and gleeful seal clapping, we finally settled down after the ship went through and went inside to check out the museum.

 

The Panama Canal fan-girling continued as we quickly discovered that when mankind put their minds into something, we will damn well accomplish it. Even if we have to blast through 7.3 metric tons of earth, enough to build a causeway with that displaced dirt to connect the mainland to several islands:

Or invent a whole new ship that can dig through rock under the sea:

Or change an entire city’s infrastructure to eliminate mosquito infested water so they would stop losing workers to yellow fever.

Or built an entire train network just to transport debris and canal-building supplies.

And the reward for all this backbreaking work and human ingenuity?

A canal that has been running for over 100 years, connecting trade between 160 countries, serving as many as 13,000 ships that pass through each year, paying around $300,000 – $400,000 each, and is considered as one of the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century.

If that doesn’t make you proud to be an engineer, I don’t know what does.

After all this geeking out and feeling proud of the human race, we decided to head to the Fish Market (Mercado de Mariscos) to enjoy fancy pants lobster, octopus, and shrimp ceviche served in a not-so-fancy-pants Styrofoam cup.

Now, if you’re one of those fussy people who can’t enjoy pretentious food unless it’s served on even more pretentious plates, this isn’t for you.

But for us engineers, who couldn’t give a rat’s ass, we got to eat some of the tastiest Lobster ceviche we’ve ever had for the princely sum of $5.95 USD.

After our lobster feast, we walked along the waterfront and headed for Casco Viejo, one of the most historical areas in the city with the prettiest Spanish architecture:

The heat and mugginess of the city reminded me of a lot of Malaysia, so I was happy that after a long day of walking around, we got to back to the Airbnb and take a refreshing dip in the pool:

We also got to enjoyed this view:

 

I could easily see why so many expats have decided to make Panama city their home. The great weather, the safe location (we didn’t get any weird vibes walking around at night), the political stability, the delicious and affordable seafood, and the reasonable price of living makes it an attractive destination. Especially if you’re a big dork and get your rocks off from watching massive ships squeeze themselves through narrow canals. Okay, that sounded a lot less dirty in my head. Oh well.

Here’s how much we spent in Panama City:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $34 USD/night $45 CAD/night We stayed in an AirBnb which was a modern condo with a fabulous view and nice swimming pool. We shared the kitchen and bathroom with the host who was really helpful in telling us about the best attractions in the city. It was easy to get to the waterfront in only 25 mins using the subway."
Food: $20 USD/day $27 CAD /day ($18/day for eating out, $9 for groceries (mostly booze) Food was pricier than cities in Mexico, but still pretty reasonable, especially since we ate at the Fish Market almost everyday. Groceries were also more expensive than Mexico with less variety.
Transportation: $13.60 USD/day $18 CAD/day The flight from Mexico city to Panama was  $327 USD for 2 people, averaged over the 27 days we were in Central America, that's $12USD for a couple/day. Transportation around the city was ridiculously cheap at only 0.25 USD per ride on the subway. The downside is that the coverage throughout the city isn't great, but it does cover all the big attractions. It also saved us a ton of money when instead of taking the a cab from the Airport into the city for $50-60USD, we just took the bus. Normally you can't do this unless you have a subway card and you can't get subway card until you're in the city, but the locals were super kind and used their card to let us on. They refused to take the money when I tried to pay them back. Thankfully the cost was only $0.25 per person.
Entertainment: $4.5 USD/day $6 CAD/day We spent $15 USD per person to visit the Panama Canal and only $5 USD for an audio guide to see Casco Viejo. Averaged over 8 days that's only $4.5 USD/day
Total: $72 USD/couple/day $96 CAD/couple/night

One of the advantages of Panama is that they use the USD here, which makes it super convenient, but also causes the prices to be a bit inflated. In addition to the USD, they also use the local currency, the Balboa (named after Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first person to envision the Panama Canal), which trades at parity with the USD.

Overall, we really enjoyed Panama for its safety, nice weather, cheap transportation, and fun attractions.

Also, nergasms.



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56 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Panama City: A Nerdtastic Paradise”

  1. I work in the shipping industry, and man I’ve never seen anybody so interested in something so drab in all my life! Especially a millennial.

    The Panama Canal is certainly a major achievement, it’s just a shame they charge a stupid amount to let ships use it. There needs to be some competition there so hopefully the Nicaragua canal is a realistic proposal and gets completed one day.

    1. I can email it to you directly. I don’t do that out of respect for the host…in case they’re not comfortable with me putting up their link and getting a bunch of spam.

      1. that would be so awesome. Thank you. Oh, and totally understandable about not wanting to share the host’s link. I think they will get so much traffic they won’t know what to do with.

        Cheers,
        Z

  2. I saw a documentary on this canal and very mesmerized. Being port city born and watched all the big ships built and pass thru back home…I did not get excited to go to panam only for this.
    But will sure stop by next time if I have connecting flight long layover (aermomexico or copa airline..don’t remember will have some times long layovers)

    btw.. how are you guys converting to USD..do you guys have USD portfolio where you take USD dividends or converting CAD dividends from CAD portfolio into USD..
    Also, do you guys maintain USD account and credit cards?
    appreciate if you can share how you guys are spending abroad in direct USD or converting CAD to USD every time you need funds..

    1. We do have a USD account with a US credit card. We don’t use that account often unless we’re travelling to the US or places that use USD (like Panama or Cambodia).

      For accommodations, it’s already in CAD dollars because the Airbnb.ca does the conversion. For everything else, we use the USD account and US credit card. When we run out of US dollars in that account, we convert Canadian dollars and transfer it over.

      1. I’d love to hear more about these strategies. I’m also not american but I do have an account and cc here. Would it make sense to keep it when I move out? Actually, can I? How does IRS taxes work in this case?

        1. When you say you have an account and cc “here”, do you mean in the States? Or in Panama? Are you planning to move out of the US?

        2. I kept my US credit card (mailing address at a friend’s place) and bank account when I moved back to Canada. It’s useful. You’re not making money, so the IRS doesn’t really care.

  3. The Bayonne Bridge in NYC recently opened (8 Sept 2017) after raising the roadway to accommodate the New Panamax ships that can now traverse the canal. I was lucky enough to work on the design of the new approaches to the bridge. There are additional bridges along the US coast that are either undergoing or have undergone work to accommodate the new ships. Nerdgasm!

  4. I am not quite as nerdy as you, in terms of the engineering aspect, but I watched a documentary on the Panama Canal and it definitely raised some curiosity. Enough so that I quickly added Panama City to my list of places to visit. Now thinking back, I also found visiting the Hoover Dam (with an engineer) to be quite a thrill..perhaps I missed my calling?

    PS – That lobster ceviche looks AMAZING…who the fuck cares what kind of plate it’s served on??

    1. “who the fuck cares what kind of plate it’s served on”?

      See, you get it.

      And the fact that you find canals and dams thrilling means you’re an honorary nerd! Welcome to the club!

  5. No stopping by the Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama City?
    *wink * wink *

    I think a post on how to set up an offshore shell corp is appropriate for us FIRE folks.
    Ha

  6. Dude dude dude! Backstory: my parents, when they retired in 2010, bought a canal boat and lived aboard it throughout the Netherlands every summer. Mom passed away last year, so this past June dad and I went back to get the boat ready for sale; it was docked just outside of Maasbracht.

    Where they have a RAD and HUGE three-channel lock:

    https://www.tue.nl/fileadmin/content/faculteiten/wtb/Onderzoek/Onderzoeksgroepen/Control_Systems_Technology/Research/Projects/mgoorden/Fig1.png

    (folks’ boat’s marina is visible in the canal to the right.)

    Watching that thing do its job is amazing. There are armed employees who operate it out of the modern-looking building on the left, the only armed people I saw in all of Europe. Dad told me it was sorta terrifying to go through that lock in their little 14-meter houseboat — I can’t imagine.

    Big ups to Panama for making such an indispensable marvel of engineering happen, but man, the Dutch have been doing it right (for survival’s sake) for centuries.

    They did not, however, have lobster ceviche. Aaaaand now I want acidified seafood. Yum!

    1. Oh God. Nerdgasm level 1000! I can imagine it being terrifying, but also mind-blowingly awesome at the same time.

      Though “the dutch and their canal ingenuity” isn’t exact what first comes to mind when I’m Netherlands. I’m usually too busy losing feeling in my face and saying things like “duuuuuuuuude…”

  7. I did this exact same trip about 5 or 6 years ago and still think of that fish market ceviche!! I then took a sail boat to Colombia hehe love Central America!!!
    Just getting into your blog- on the 3rd post only but learning a lot! Many questions to come!

      1. I sure did! San Blas were absolutely amazing..:. The boat ride which pretty much everyone was sick on for 3 days wasn’t quite the same thrill 😂 Still a very cool experience! I did 10 years of ‘retirement’ traveling and working overseas in my 20’s so puts me behind in savings ATM but that’s why I am here reading your blogs now! 🙂 can’t wait to see where you guys are off to next!! (And continue binging through your blog hehe)

          1. @joe that would of been smart to first get an education before I traveled rather than go straight out of high school and work in bars and at temp jobs lol don’t regret it still but yeah…. hindsight!

        1. Wow, that sounds like the quite the adventure! (even for me…never been sick for 3 days from a boat ride)

          Thanks for reading and commenting. As we’ve seen from the Friday Reader Cases, it’s never too late to start saving and investing! The power of compounding is on your side.

      1. Very cool how the Chautauquans (yes, it’s totally a word now) are passing through Panama! We didn’t try a lot of vegetarian food while we were there, but we did have patacones (fried green plantains) and they were pretty tasty!

    1. Excellent! If you have just one night, definitely go to the Fish Market and waterfront. And if you’re a fellow nerd, the Panama Canal is a must!

  8. Wonderful….Panama Canal is an engineering wonder indeed. I love that you guys are going down South America…I’m so anxious to hear about Chile, Peru, and Brazil..our planned home when we achieve FIRE.

    1. Those are amazing places to retire to! Machu Picchu is on our list and we met friends at the Chautauqau UK who lived in Brazil for a whlie…they loved it. Go South America!

    1. That’s what we heard before we went, and it can get pricey if you go out partying every night and take the cab everywhere. Compared to Mexico, it’s definitely pricier but surprisingly reasonable if you know how to use public transportation ( I mean, how can you go wrong with only 0.25 cents USD per trip? ).

      No, not all food in Panama is served in plastic cups. There are a lot of fancy, upscale restaurants.

      The Fish Market is one of these no frills, grab a quick bite and chill out type of places. Once I saw the lobster, I didn’t give a shit what it was served it. Could be bull testicles for all I cared.

    2. ah Mister Tako, typical american here ! no, not all food in Panama is served in plastic cups…I’m from here and I can say this is unique and almost hard to find..you can come to visit us no problem

  9. the most unappealing place you have been to yet … . nothing made me want to visit .. planning my trip to India for this winter ..

      1. Guys, I’m from Panama and there is so much more here than the Canal. Plenty of nature parks, amazing beaches, rainforest, night life, Darién and much more…Nick please, Panama is appealing, come to visit us

    1. I know. Conditions back then were terrible. The only bright spot to come out of that is they figured out how to save people from Malaria and Yellow fever because they were losing too many workers to these diseases. Sometimes medical science progresses out of necessity.

      I’m going to have to check out that Falkirk Wheel next time I’m in Scotland! Thanks for the recommendation!

  10. Hello. FI in the UK here. We came close to sorting out a trip to Panama City recently, but we got put off because the locals on TripAdvisor said it wasn’t safe to walk out of Casco Viejo (this old town area sounded like the most interesting bit to stay in, but it’s quite small). We like to walk around everywhere, rather than take taxis to specific places all the time. A shame, but we still want to see the canal one day. Anyway, we’re going to Cyprus instead!

    1. We walked around Casco Viejo and it was never a problem. It felt very safe. I think maybe on TripAdvisor they’re talking about not walking around at night.

      Cyprus is a good trade off though! I’ve heard lots of good things about it.

  11. Thanks for another great travel post. Do you have a list of how many nights you have spent in each location? My wife and I want to do slow travel when I retire (hopefully in a couple of years) and I definitely want to visit many of the places you have been. So I am interested in how long you have been in each place. Thanks!

    1. Hi Stephen,

      How much time we spend in each location really depends. In Panama City, we spent 8 days. But in South East Asia, we spent 2 months in Chiang Mai and in Mexico, we spent 1 month in Oaxaca. I’d say on average we spend around a week in each city…unless it’s a really small city like Puela and we’re just passing by on our way to Mexico City.

      Very cool that you’ll be able to retire in a couple of years! I like starting our travels in Europe just because the countries are so close to each other and it’s easy to hop around on trains, buses, and budget airlines. We usually stay about a week in each city (Airbnb also gives you a discount for staying a week versus a few days)

  12. Oh man, I will be stopping through Panama this week, but unfortunately its only for a short layover. No time to even leave the airport. Now I wish I would have had at least a day or two to spend there. The lobstah and canal will have to wait for me.

  13. Neat travel post! I am backpacking through Central America at the moment and was going to fly down to Ecuador from Belize, but after reading your post (and checking flight prices), I’ve decided it’s worth a few days of time (and few hundred bucks) to stop by in Panama in a few days to check out this nerdtastic human feat of engineering and eat some delicious seafoods. Will you guys still be around or have you moved on from Panama?

    1. Awesome! Funnily enough, we’re actually no longer there and heading for Ecuador (to speak at Chautauqua) soon. Enjoy your time there though! Eat lots of seafood for us!

  14. Funny, I am thinking about where to travel…and I have to hit this financial saving/investing blog to figure out some great travel ideas! (Kudos on your helpful write-ups.)

    I thought of Panama, Belize, Costa Rica, and other South American places. But then I google up these places and the word “safe” or “dangerous”…and check out those formal travel advisories…

    Are these South American places safe? Did you research into safety before leaving and decide, e.g. “Oh, those headlines about dangers/murders/kidnappings are sensationalist, so let’s go!”

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