(April 7 – written by Dave)
We’ve enjoyed our time in Panama City. It’s a pretty large city listed at 1.5 million people but honestly, there are so many tall buildings, the city feels much larger. It almost seems more North American than it does Latin American. I suspect that the US influence over the years has had a big impact. Add to this the canal, early cross-isthmus railroad and general geographic location – all these factors come together to mean that there are a lot of “foreigners” here.
We’ve enjoyed a Starbucks coffee most days as there has been no obvious Panamanian alternative and there is a Starbucks shop just around the corner from our hotel. That is not to say that food options are in short supply. We’ve had Thai, Lebanese and Italian dinners while staying in Panama City. Even though eating food from faraway places is not always the best choice, here the offerings were all tasty and authentic – most likely another reflexion of Panama being an international crossroads.
Yesterday we decided to play tourist again and visited the old-town area of Panama City. Panama City was founded in 1519 but completely destroyed in 1671 when it was intentionally burnt to the ground. There are two versions of how this came about. The first tale involves the Lord Mayor bravely setting the city alight to prevent the pirate Henry Morgan from taking over. You see, Henry had 1,400 of his good mates with him ready to ransack the city. The second telling of destruction is about Henry and the boys coming in and kicking butt. Either way, the city was levelled.
The strategic location of Panama City to the Spanish and their ongoing conquest of Central and South America meant that the city had to be rebuilt. This took place two years later in 1673, but this time at a site 5 miles to the southwest where there were much better natural defensive formations. This new location survived and today is known as Casco Viejo – or simply old town.
Old-town is going through a significant period of gentrification today. Many buildings are in a state of nearly complete ruin. Other buildings are smartly painted, with cafes on the ground floor and boutique hotels or apartments above. It’s not 100% popular as we did spot a group camping in tents with “stop the gentrification” posters. We spend the morning wandering taking photos. There are also some nice views of the new city out across the water. Old town would be a fun place to hang out for a week or two, though traffic is busy and it’s not clear how one would get to a grocery store. We spotted a Spanish language school – worth a look in the future perhaps.
The indigenous population of Panama City is hard to spot. The Spanish have been here for almost forever. And even before the canal was built the whole area has been a crossroads for travellers from all corners. Still we’ve seen a few traditionally dressed locals, both in the tourist areas and out on the PanAm highway while riding last week. They look a lot like other groups we’ve seen in Central America except here, the women wear the oddest “socks”. The photo below shows one pair – all beads and not overly sock like. I’m sure that there is more to the story.
After all the old town buildings, I wanted to capture some of the modern Panama City as well. So today after getting everything packed and ready for our flight tomorrow, we headed over to the Hard Rock Cafe rooftop bar. The Hard Rock brand is not what it used to be and even though the building is pretty new, the whole place seemed kind of tired. We had heard that they wanted $20 cover to enter their rooftop bar (which we would never pay) but we went up to the 62 floor anyway.
Well, no cover. And no customers. We were the only ones there. There were a few staff but they didn’t offer us a drink, much less say Hola. We had to get the security guard to open the doors for us to get onto the outside deck. The views are nice but overall, the experience was a bit underwhelming. Shame really, the location and aspect could have been stunning, with just a little thought about customer service. Anyway, we got some photos and now we know not to put the Hard Rock Cafe Panama City at the top of our “come back to see” list. There are plenty of other draws in Panama City. Perhaps it really picks up later in the evening…
So, tomorrow we fly to Colombia. To South America. Wow, that seemed a long way away for a long time. We’ll update at some point from Cartagena. We’ll be there for 3 or 4 days to get everything put back together and ready to head further south. One more currency to learn, another phone SIM to sort out but at least our Spanish language skills (however weak they are) will continue to be useful. Vamos!