La Ciudad de Panama (Panama City) is a roaring best of cultural-hodgepodge, with music and car horns vying for your ears amid the watch-setting afternoon rains and the hustle and bustle of people constantly on the move. Habitants of Panama City aren’t necessarily in a hurry or angry people, mind you; “Panamanian Time” means phone calls returned days later and no one in a rush to get you away from your strawberry salad (fresh greens, strawberries, oil/vinegar – simple yet satisfying). What’s important to understand about Panama City is that, for quite some time, Americans occupied it, along with the rest of the country. We’re told that it was merely a semi-hostile co-existence, and while the Panamanians, as a whole, seem to have moved on, they don’t necessarily want you gringos to forget it; you can clearly see evidence of US barracks, and the Balboa High School memorial is a potent reminder of some of the US’s involvement with Panama’s past. Of course, see the canal; it’s quite marvelous engineering, but make a point to grab fresh ceviche and the Best Sangria in the World (yes, it’s better than Spain’s) on the causeway, which is fun to bike on; right before you get to the causeway you can go to Isla Tobago, a fetching little island that’s about as far away from a commercial beach as you could get.
Casco Viejo, the old part of the city, boasts a peacock-filled palace and some wild ruins and re-used buildings; the architecture shows the French and Spanish influence that permeated the city during the hustle over the building of the canal. Casco Viejo is charming, but it’s a tourist trap; go for ambience and beautiful eats and views here instead of souvenirs. The best thing to do in Panama is to walk around and get involved with the noise of the city; haggle over molas, refuse pirated watches, learn to bump into people. Understand that if you’re a woman, the cars will honk at you – machismo is not dead in Panama City. There are several natural and blissed-out spots around the city, like the Embera Village (as seen on Samantha Brown and Anthony Bourdain’s shows – yes, the fresh fried plantains are delicious), the Metropolitan National Park (hike to the top for great view of the city) as well as several well-meaning but getting-touristy nature preserves – you’ll definitely see a monkey, and it’s sad that it’s come to that. I’m biased, but definitely don’t miss the polleras at Las Tinajas – or the wine list or food there. The most important thing to know about Panama City, as you jumble your Balboas and US dollars together (same thing, really) is that this city is home to more diversity in once spot that I’ve seen anywhere else; the construction of the canal brought hundreds of immigrants from the Carribean, Africa, South America, and Europe, and Panama has several indigenous peoples to boot. And Panamanians love to have fun and party, and you’ll be glad if you join them, trust me:)
Note: There are some places in Panama City that tourists might not want to go to, and the tourist police will stop you if they feel you’ve wandered in unaware. Also, Panama’s multiple religions worship and practice in peace, making this a world rarity that visitors must respect. Make sure to know some Spanish; English is spoken but you’ll want to know a few phrases to stop harassment. Definitely know Spanish phrases for the cabs, which will frighten the pants off of you while you marvel at paying $5 to travel all the way across town.
Filed under: Central America, Latin America | Tagged: architecture, balboa, Balboa high school, cabs, Casco Viejo, Ciudad de Panama, dollar, Embera Village, fried plantains, Las Tinajas, Latin America, Metropolitan National Park, Panama, Panama Canal, Panama City, pollera, sangria, seviche, Spanish, US barracks, warning | Leave a Comment »