Let’s face it, the layover is a frequent inescapable byproduct of air travel. Wasted time, rushing from terminal to terminal, a tiny granola bar for $7…these are just some of the things that come to mind. Once in a while, an opportunity presents itself that makes you rethink the whole thing. Such was the case on our recent trip to Peru. Copa Airlines was the most affordable airlines to Lima and there were three options to choose from, all of which resulted in a layover in Panama City, Panama: 40 minutes (too risky for changing planes), 15 hours (just enough time to sleep, but hardly worth the cost of a hotel to not be able to see or do anything), and 22 hours (long enough to have pretty much a day to see at least some of the city, or at least the Panama Canal). Hmmm…stress-inducing half hour or the chance to add another country to my list? Sold! I chose the 22-hour layover.
That turned out to be an excellent choice, and the date was possibly serendipitous: July 4th. Aside from a little snafu with the check-in, our hotel in the center of the old town was a perfect base. We got to bed rather late, but started the next morning early with a delicious breakfast at Tántalo Kitchen (which is also a hotel and bar, but not where we stayed). They helped us arrange a taxi to take us up to the canal in time to see some ships travel through the locks from the Pacific towards the Atlantic. The driver, Luis, offered to take us to another location for a few dollars more, so we decided to continue to the Amador Causeway. Along the way, we got history lessons about the college students who climbed the border fence in 1964 in protest against US occupation (we passed by the still-existing fence), and the slums of the city and the deadly US invasion in 1989 that I hardly remember. We continued back downtown to a museum, had a cheap lunch at a local dive where all the hotel owners go for a good home-cooked meal, enjoyed a pour-over coffee and pastry, and finally a cup of raspao (fruit-flavored shaved ice from a huge ice block) from a street vendor. We had negotiated having him drive us around all day and then to the airport. We became Facebook friends.
After Luis dropped us off at the airport, it was hard to believe this was just a layover and not a full-fledged vacation. Even though it was less than a day, we had just had an amazing whirlwind tour of Panama’s capital at a pace that did not feel rushed at all. The value of what we had just experienced was certainly worth the price of breaking up the flight. We left Panama with open arms, hoping that we would come back another time not just for a layover.