AirBnB: First & LAST Experience

We have lived in Panama 14 years and the last time my daughter and her family were able to visit my oldest grandson was only 4 years old.  So, we had the whole family down and with two boys, ages 5 and 10, we wanted this to be a special and perfect visit.  Knowing that I would be on a ship, flying home the same day they arrived and literally meeting up with them in baggage claim at Tocumen Airport, I wanted everything arranged and nothing left to chance.  We had a busy three days planned for Panama City before flying up to Boquete.

I had never used AirBnB, but I’ve heard a lot about it, and was amazed while I was working on a ship going to Cuba how popular the concept was … in Cuba!

Logging on to the AirBnB Web site, I was surprised at how cumbersome and clunky it was, and how difficult it was to actually navigate and find things.  But I did find what looked to be a perfect solution for us …

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/24377495

It was right in the heart of the old, colonial city, Casco Viejo, had beautiful pictures, was one of the old colonial buildings that looked to have been delightfully restored, and had beds sufficient for the six of us, and with a complete kitchen would make it very easy to keep the kids happy and fed, and all of the amazing Casco Viejo was in walking distance.  So we booked it to the tune of $532.98.

“Superhost” Maurcio was praised in the write ups, so all looked good.  Knowing how chaotic Casco Viejo can be, and that, like most of Panama, there are no street signs or addresses, and since no postal deliver service, I emailed “Superhost” Mauricio for detailed directions.    Since I was onboard ship with very limited email/Internet connectivity I requested several times directions and addresses from Mauricio.  His only response was “Calle 6 Oeste, Casco Viejo.”  Knowing that I needed much more than this I made several requests without response.

So as I travelled between the ship, airport, and flew to Panama I could only hope that our driver could find what was advertised on AirBnB as the “Mi Casa Inn.”

We arrived in Panama, got our luggage, piled into our driver’s van and headed off to find “Mi Casa Inn” on “Calle 6 Oeste, Casco Viejo.”  Knowing we needed more precise information we called the phone number provided by “Superhost” Mauricio, but there was no answer.  We left a message and asked him to call back ASAP.  Driving around Casco Viejo at 9:30 PM, up and down Calle 6 Oeste, neither the driver, nor anyone we asked, which by the way included four policemen on the beat, three restaurants/stores, and one woman working the street, and nobody had heard of anything like “Mi Casa Inn” or knew anything.  Predictable?  Yes, which is why I had been so insistent asking our “Superhost” Mauricio for specific directions, even a GPS location, but he provided nothing.

By this time, it was 10:30 am, driving around Casco Viejo in the darkness, with two kids, ages 5 and 10, who had been up since 4 am Pacific Time, we had no choice but to abandon our plan and seek a place to stay.  Fortunately, Wyndham Albrook was able to accommodate us with two rooms at a cost of $300 for the night.

Since “Superhost Mauricio” had cancelled our stay by his nonperformance, after a brief flurry of email attempts to AirBnB, we decided to remain at Wyndham, at $300 a night, and not mess around any further with Mauricio or AirBnb.  I requested a full refund for nonperformance.

The morning after driving around Casco Viejo in circles, getting into the Wyndham, I was able to get online and find that “Superhost” Mauricio had indeed sent me directions, the detailed directions I had requested when I booked and several times in the interim, he had send the directions at 8:45 PM the night before we were scheduled to check in … when of course I was traveling between the ship and Panama without Internet access, which of course is the reason why I had explicitly asked him for the information earlier, explaining that I was on traveling without reliable access.

Between my wife and the driver we attempted to call Mauricio’s number, as listed on the reservation, SEVEN times, leaving an urgent message each time, but we never received any response.

First, Mauricio offered a $50 refund.

Then AirBnB offered to cover half of the cost of our first night hotel, if we went back to trying to find Mauricio’s “Amazing new and big apartment with terrace/garden.”  Had they offered to cover the whole cost, $300 for two rooms, rather than only half, I might have viewed it as at least a noble gesture of good will.

AirBnB has upped their offer to $200.

I paid $532.00 for nothing!  Of course I want a complete refund.  AirBnB is located in Dublin so they can duck all responsibility and  I will probably need more than the luck of the Irish to get any refund.  We shall see.

Doing a little online research, I discover that even although prostitution is legal in Panama City, it turns out that “Super Host” Mauricio’s business is not.  According to the Administrator of the Tourism Authority of Panama, Gustavo Him, the rental of apartments or residences through the Airbnb platform for less than 45 days is prohibited in the district of Panama.  Without any government oversight, you stay in an AirBnB at your own risk since there is nobody checking on the health and safety of these very independent and sometimes illegal accommodations even although in many jurisdictions, apparently nobody really cares. And AirBnB is located in Dublin, so good luck with that.

It sounded good … maybe too good to be true.  I know the AirBnB concept is popular with almost everyone but hoteliers, but based on my experience with a “Superhost” no less, I’m not sure I want to be taken in by the beautiful pictures and hype of AirBnB again.

Interestingly, I note that AirBnB no longer identifies Marucio as a “Superhost.”  AiBnB sent an email requested information/evaluation which when I attempted to respond had apparently been disabled.  Their Web site makes it almost impossible to communicate with them, which I guess is their intent.

Change

022This well-done video tells the story of former gang members in the old, colonial part of Panama City known as Casco Viejo. Former members of the gang known as “The City of God” have turned from their lives of violence and robbing tourists to entrepeneurs and owners and operators of Fortaleza Tours. Today they show tourists around this now restored historic center of the old Panama City, once known as “the richest city in the world.” Here is the church of St Joseph, home to the golden altar that almost miraculously was spared from the pirate Henry Morgan. The idea of gang members becoming community leaders and tour operators is largely because of the vision of a young American developer, Matthew Landau, who took one of the old eyesore buildings of Casco Viejo and turned it into a five-star boutique hotel. This is that fascinating story

Please click image …

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Taking Money or Making Money From Tourists

This is a cool piece by Carrie Kahn  NPR [National Public Radio] featured about former gang members in the historic Casco Viejo section of Panama City who’ve gone from robbing tourists to serving them.

Panama, like its Central American neighbors, is struggling with a rise in gangs. A recent census by the country’s security forces put the number of criminal organizations operating in Panama now at about 200.

One neighborhood, in the capital’s historic district, is taking on its gang problem with a group of strange bedfellows.

First, meet K.C. Hardin.

“I moved to Panama 12 years ago just to surf and do nothing for a couple years, I thought,” says Hardin.

Developer K.C. Hardin has rehabbed the neoclassical American Trade Hotel, which had been home to one of Casco Viejo’s fiercest gangs.
Developer K.C. Hardin has rehabbed the neoclassical American Trade Hotel, which had been home to one of Casco Viejo’s fiercest gangs.
The still super-tan former New York corporate lawyer not only fell in love with the country, but also with Panama City’s old historic neighborhood, known as Casco Viejo.

“I wound up getting myself into real estate development somehow,” says Hardin. He’s rehabbed some of the old city’s most gorgeous properties, including the neoclassical American Trade Hotel and the Art Deco former Citibank headquarters.

That was no easy feat, considering the hotel was in ruins and had become home to one of Casco Viejo’s fiercest gangs.

Which brings us to the other partner in the rehabilitation of the neighborhood: the gang members, like Luis Ricardo James. Everyone calls him Ricky.

“We used to rob tourists here,” says James. “That’s how we survived.”

So did his cousin, Antonio Luis James, who was the leader of the local gang.

Standing just blocks from Hardin’s restored hotel, where a room can go for up to $400 a night, James points to a rundown house. His brother, also a gang member, was shot dead there. The dispute was over a stolen necklace.

Both James and his cousin have spent time in prison: Ricky, seven months for a firearms violation; Antonio, three years for what he says was an accessory to murder charge.

Two years ago, with Hardin’s help and a local evangelical church, the men and dozens more began a rehabilitation program. They got job training and self-esteem building. A year ago, they opened a fruit stand and a local bar, and now they cater to tourists instead of robbing them.

On a hot and humid recent afternoon, Antonio James gives a tour of Casco Viejo. Along the way we see historic sites, like the colonial-era wall that guarded the city from pirates. We meet neighbors, like a 92-year-old woman who lives in government-subsidized housing and won’t be pushed out by rising rents and gentrification. We also stop at what used to be gang hot spots.

James also stops to point out his mom, who’s waving furiously at us from the third floor of an old wooden building. He says she’s really proud of him and his turnaround. With his earnings from the tour and his fruit stand, James is putting his younger sister through college. She, too, beams at us from across the street as we continue on the tour.

Police crime statistics testify to the old city’s revitalization. There’s only been one robbery this year.

Hardin and the James cousins hope they can spread that good fortune and their pacification strategies to other parts of the country, and even beyond.

But while Panama is struggling with a growing gang problem and new ties with international criminal organizations, violence here is nowhere near the levels experienced in El Salvador or Honduras, says Ana Selles de Palacio of the Institute of Criminology at Panama University.

Selles says to keep combating gangs so they don’t reach critical levels, “it will require resources, technical expertise and political will.”

Hardin couldn’t agree more. He likes to say you can’t have healthy societies without healthy cities. He hopes that redevelopment, without displacing local residents, will be part of that strategy.

“Revitalizing the city core and doing it in an inclusive sustainable way,” he says. “I see it as a national priority for a lot of Latin America.”

James wants the same. He says he wants a better neighborhood and life for his children.

And, he adds, honest work is better: He’s making more money giving tours to tourists than robbing them.