Part 1 of our Quick & Dirty Panama Tour took us to the glimmering white sand beaches and crystal clear waters of Bocas del Toro near the Costa Rican border.
After 5 days of aquatic adventures and fun in the sun, we sought a change of pace in the form of the bustling urban metropolis that is Panama City.
A chilly, 10-hour bus ride later, and we were there.
Casco Viejo – Historical Charm
Panama City, we would come to learn very quickly, is a city of contradictions. Our chosen haunt, the neighborhood of Casco Viejo (literally translated to “Old Town”), is quaint, charming and colonial–here, street vendors, street art, street food and street dogs are par for the course. Travel just 10 minutes away to the other side of the bay, however, and you’ll find a pulsing concrete jungle where super malls, skyscrapers and multi-lane freeways rule.
Even within Casco Viejo striking contrasts can be found. An overwhelming police presence in Casco Viejo can mean one of two things: either you are wandering near the Presidential Palace, the official residence of the Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, or you are wandering into impoverished areas where excessive gun violence is an unfortunate reality and where tourists are turned away forcefully for their own safety.
Casco Viejo was settled in 1673 by Spanish colonialists following the near total destruction of the original city, Panama Viejo, by the pirate Henry Morgan. It sits on an isolated peninsula where defensive walls could be built on all sides. Many parts of the neighborhood have been painstakingly restored over the years while others sit in crumbling disrepair, a nod to the district’s tumultuous history. Casco Viejo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and now houses many boutique shops, gourmet restaurants, museums and upscale residences alongside the many buildings still in ruins.
A culturally and historically rich neighborhood, Casco Viejo makes for a perfect home base when visiting the city. You have your choice of Panamanian cuisine (and coffee) or any number of international restaurants a mere stone’s throw away, not to mention a spectacular view of the downtown skyline (see photo above). Reaching the city center is a short bus ride or an inexpensive taxi ride away, or during the daytime if you’re feeling ambitious, a stroll along the water will take you there in under an hour.
Downtown Panama City – The High Life
While we spent much of our time relaxing in Casco Viejo, we would have been remiss to not explore downtown as well. Feeling ambitious one morning and in need of some retail therapy, I hoofed it all the way from our hostel in Casco Viejo to Multiplaza Pacific, a mega mall located somewhere north of the Trump Ocean Club and somewhere east of F&F Tower, arguably two of Panama City’s most recognizable skyscrapers (the latter a green swirly thing resembling a giant strand of DNA).
The frosty conditioned air inside the mall was a major draw (Panama City boasts some rather oppressive heat and humidity) and I spent a few hours losing myself in the vastness and marveling at the mall-wide free WiFi connection.
On one of our final nights in the city, we decided to indulge in a few fancy cocktails 62 stories above the city at Bits Rooftop Lounge in the Hard Rock Hotel. We threw on our [relative] best and dragged a few hostelmates along with us. The views were pretty spectacular from that vantage point and the mango martinis were strong.
The Panama Canal – An Engineering Marvel
“He probably won’t be able to start it again if he turns the engine off,” we surmised as we sat at a gas station on the outskirts of Panama City, engine humming as our taxi driver topped up.
We had our doubts that this car, the filthy, crumbling, practically-held-together-with-duct-tape, scented-with-no-fewer-than-12-air-fresheners taxi we’d hailed outside the hostel was capable of getting us safely to the Miraflores Visitors’ Center at the Panama Canal as promised, much less back again.
But the taxi driver chatted away enthusiastically giving our front-seat companion a full if not partially fictional history of Panama City (none of us in the back seat could hear him over the sound of traffic or the noisy engine) as we careened along the highway to our destination, cheerfully unaware of the nervous side glances being exchanged just behind him.
As we lurched to a halt in the parking lot and spilled out of our vehicular death trap, we could already see a massive freighter making its way past the viewing platform. “Let’s go, we don’t want to miss it!” My shouts fell on deaf ears as I went bounding up the steps to the building entrance.
Once inside, I realized my haste had been for nothing. The locks were slow to fill (faster than you can fill a bathtub though–the system is capable of transferring 101,000 cubic meters of water in just eight minutes raising a ship an impressive 26 meters, or 85 feet if you’re in America) and with two separate transit lanes, we had plenty of time to watch the canal in action.
We crowded up to the front of the fourth floor viewing platform like anxious school children. The enormity of the ships from such a vantage point was suddenly the least impressive of what we were seeing. The excitement peaked a few minutes later when an alarm buzzed loudly, signaling the opening of the gate. Electric cars on rails began working to haul the cargo ship dubbed MSC KIM into the second lock (the ships rarely operate on their own power once inside the canal). Excitement faded after several minutes of this snail-like process and I realized I would never re-watch the world’s most boring video, which I had just shot.
Excitement peaked again, however, during the 3D movie depicting the Panama Canal’s history, and yet again at every fascinating turn in the four-story museum–my favorite part being the simulation of a cargo ship’s wheelhouse as it cruises through the extensive canal system.
Chilly from our two-hour stint in heavily air-conditioned quarters, we stumbled back into the warmth of daylight to find our faithful taxi driver waiting to escort us back to his, ahem, faithful steed.
Overall Impression – Understated Appeal
Panama City, despite the stifling heat and humidity, impressed me far beyond expectation. From the excellent cuisine in Casco Viejo, to the vibrant energy after-dark, to the fascinating and eye-opening achievement of the Panama Canal, the city won me over in every regard (well, minus the bed bugs in my hostel, but you can’t win ’em all). I would recommend Panama City as a must-see destination in a heartbeat. Its close proximity to some pretty gorgeous islands doesn’t hurt either.
Visiting a place with low or no expectations usually leaves me pleasantly surprised. Do you prefer to research extensively or wing it like me?