Bienvenidos Panama City Panama!
Wandering around Panama City I found myself thinking,
‘Just a few weeks ago if someone had suggested investing in Panama I would have laughed and thought they were crazy!’
Like most North Americans I knew little about Panama. To the best of my distant memory of high school geography Panama was a small country, somewhere in Central America, with the grand Panama Canal offerring a shortcut for ships wanting to get their cargo from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice verse. I also recalled news of drug trafficking and the talk of a dictator roaming about. A very personal wake up call (see my first letter from Panama) followed by some intense research – on the internet, in the library and on the phone to people on the ground in Panama changed my life and my knowledge of Panama forever.
Our journey began as I prepared my apprehensive family for a different kind of vacation. An adventure into a third world, jungle country – or so I thought. We removed our jewellery, left our nice clothes behind, donned our backpacks and boarded an airplane in Toronto. Less than 5 hours later we landed at Tocumen International Airport in the Republic of Panama. Something had to be wrong! There was no stop-over and the time was the same. How could this world away be less than 5 hours, non-stop from Toronto and in the same time zone?
After arriving at the international airport in Tocumen we were picked up by a driver, as promised by the contact I had made. He drove us along the modern toll highway (Corredor Sur, meaning ‘the south run’) our final destination – Via España in the heart of Panama City. Reaching the point where the toll highway is built out over the Pacific Ocean, I looked to my right and noticed the ruins of Panama Viejo. On a later trip I arrived at night and enjoyed a special little treat as the site is lit by flood lights and looks quite impressive and beautiful in contrast to the modern condominium towers of Punta Pacifica, directly in front.
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Our whirlwind adventure began with a hotel stay, in the heart of Panama City, at that time it cost just over $50! Close by we noticed all of the night life and modern conveniences of any major city. Panama City really was as modern as Miami, just as we had heard – too bad we left our nice clothes and jewellery at home! And where was this destitue “Third World Country” we had been led to be afraid of? Although Panama City was busy and the drivers pretty crazy it reminded me of many other older big cities – Montreal or Rome or Paris.
Rich pre-Colombian heritage of the Panamainian native populations stretching back over 12,000 years was still evident in the Panama art and artefacts. Of course the Spanish Colonial period combined with some French influence is most obvious in the architecture of Casco Viejo, a wonderful and romantic part of Panama City. The protective fort walls (circa 1673) still stand along the edges of Casco Viejo – direct translation means ‘Old Helmet’ which is quite appropriate considering it was a location chosen for it’s safety and ease of defence. Prior to Casco Viejo Panama City was located to the north east. This is ‘Panama la Vieja’ although it is commonly referred to as Panama Viejo. Panama Viejo was founded in 1519 by the conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila, better known as Pedrarias. In 1671 the city was sacked and burned to the ground by the notorious Welsh pirate Henry Morgan. There really is little left there now beyond a few ruins but it is certainly worth a stop or drive by.
Casco Viejo, by contrast, is still a small city within Panama City and we spent a number of hours here during the day and returned again for some great dining at night. It’s a mixed bag here and the area is definitely in transition. You find old buildings with peeling paint right next to beautifully restored ones. It is quite reminiscent of New Orleans with narrow streets, cafes, restaurants and even a jazz bar. My favourite sights included: the Church of the Golden Altar (Iglesia de San José; Plaza de la Independencia (this is the plaza where Panama declared it’s independence from Columbia in 1903); Plaza de Francia, Plaza Bolívar, the area around the Palacio de las Garzas, and the Flat Arch (Arco Chato). It was lovely walking around and I really feel like I am in Europe when I visit this special place.
Although we didn’t have any problems at all, certain parts of Casco Viejo are known not to be the safest part of Panama City. However, like anywhere I found using common sense kept us out of any trouble. Also, there were plenty of tourism police (policía de turismo) around and that added a touch of comfort. Returning at night I really felt more comfortable being dropped off in the plazas. A real highlight – if not #1 then certainly close to the top of my list of favourite restaurants was Manolo Caracol on Avendia Central y calle 3ra Tercera in Casco Viejo. Be sure to call ahead for a reservation.
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P.S. Please tell me what you thought of this letter in the comments area below. What did you like? What could you have done without? What else can I tell you about Panama? Leave your comments, questions, suggestions – join the conversation and watch what happens!
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