There was a week in Costa Rica when Avianca and Copa seemed to be in a battle to practically give flights away. Melanie and I had already taken advantage of a multi-city deal that gave us a week each in El Salvador and Guatemala. Not long after returning, I found myself staring down a $100-ish roundtrip flight to Lima. The next morning? $100 roundtrip to Panama City. It was a travel no-brainer. Sold.
I had wanted to see Panama City for the same basic reasons I want to travel most anywhere. It exists and seemed important. Plus Melanie had an undying urge to see the Panama Canal. That’s not to say I had any objections. But to put my enthusiasm on the same realm as her’s would be a bold face lie.
We arrived on a weekday afternoon over Semana Santa in late March. Back in Costa Rica we had been warned that the country shuts down during the religious week. Everything is closed while Ticos flock to the coast. Panama City is an international powerhouse, though. We assumed there was no possible way it could close for holiday.
Suffice it to say, we were right. Panama City is many things. But dead is not one of them.
After over six months of boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts, we wanted a gargantuan, big city hotel. There’s something that fires me up about staying in a skyscraper of a hotel when visiting a vibrant city. That’s how I felt about Toronto, that’s how I felt about Panama City. So we ended up at the Hilton on Avenida Balboa, right in the heart of the city with the Pacific Ocean a stone’s throw away. More importantly for us was our proximity to Cinta Costera, a 64-acre land reclamation project along the Pacific Coast extending approximately eight kilometers. Looking back, I can easily call this one of the most impressive coastal park spaces I’ve ever seen in any city.
We started with a walk along the mix-use path shared between leisure cyclists and pedestrians. The first thing we noticed was the oppressive heat and humidity. It was as if a portal to Hell had leaked its atmosphere into Panama City. Talking with locals, apparently this was normal. At least we weren’t in the rainy season.
The humidity itself, though, deserves a novel of its own. You could cut through this stuff with a knife. It was like breathing water. I felt terrible for the city workers, trimming away at the gardens in full gear to protect them from the sweltering sun. They must lose several pounds a day in sweat.
If you walk slowly, it’s manageable and actually quite pleasant. Panama City showed how a city can maintain a sense of vibrancy by offering people an excuse to brave less than ideal weather conditions with inviting public spaces, like the coastal parks or various basketball and volleyball courts. Meanwhile, far too many cities around the globe have forfeited their coastal spaces to highways.
Point, Panama City.
Melanie and I continued our little trek through Mercado del Marisco, a renowned fish market right on Cinta Costera that we first saw on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The unmistakable, pungent smell of fish loomed in the air well before and after the market. Platoons of modest fishing boats floated in rows along the coast and the docks. Looking back toward the ultramodern Panama City skyline — something out of a Mega Man video game, I thought — offered an interesting contrast.
We continued toward the colonial neighborhood, which jumps back and forth between calling itself Casco Viejo and Casco Antiguo depending on who you’re talking to. We’ll go shorthand with just Casco to keep everyone happy. Or to anger both crowds. Vamos a ver.
Casco is the “Old Quarter” of Panama, hastily developed between 1671 and 1673 after the annihilation of Panama Viejo by pirates. (More on that later.) This charming colonial neighborhood has since received World Heritage Site honors and the busy sound of renovation continues throughout the red brick streets. Some of the development has even creeped over into neighboring El Chorrillo, which the travel guides will generally tell you is a no-go neighborhood. Yes, there’s crime and it looked a bit rough. But people are understandably a bit pissed off over an excessive U.S. bombing campaign that left the neighborhood in shambles during the whole Noriega fiasco of the late 80s. (You might be more familiar with the bizarre ending when U.S. forces blasted rock music at a Vatican mission where the dictator had taken refuge.)
People in the States tend to forget about that. Lord knows I had no idea. But yeah, we invaded Panama. And murals in El Chorrillo indicated that they haven’t forgotten about it.
Awkward transition to happier thoughts, Casco immediately felt like a place we could live. It was walkable, dressed with interesting architecture, and had no shortage of cafés that poured out onto the sidewalk. There was even a cervecería (brewery) in La Rana Dorada to fulfill our spoiled U.S. craft beer needs. I was perfectly content spending the afternoon in a shaded corner of the centralized Plaza de la Independencia with the towering Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción facing me. I took note of the hollowed out buildings being remodeled alongside the freshly restored apartments, imagining myself sticking my head out through the long balcony windows for an aerial view of this 17th Century playground.
Daydreaming fantasies aside, I knew a return visit to Casco was already in store to see how this placed ticked at night.
Read part two covering Parque Metropolitano, more Casco, the Panama Canal and Panama Viejo.
Disclosure: Hilton Panama provided a discount on the hotel. As always, all opinions are my own.