Panama City’s skyline is something to behold—as wide and tall and magnificent as Chicago’s.
Our first foray into town (the one that was cut short by a torrential downpour) made one thing clear: This city is a study in economic contrasts. There’s a lot of money here … and a lot of poverty right alongside. A few blocks from our hotel rose the financial district, with some of the swankiest skyscrapers you’ll see anywhere. Can you guess which one is affectionately known as the Screw?
A glance in the other direction revealed this urban drainage ditch. I would have to pay good money to buy these exotic plants, but in Panama they grow in the gutter like weeds. A mini-jungle right downtown.
We stayed a total of four nights at a Marriott in Panama City, next to the Multiplaza Pacific Mall, the most expensive mall in Central America. One of the first things I noticed was that all the billboards hawking luxury goods were in English. And many of them were mounted on tenements that housed people who would never be able to afford what was being advertised.
The “haves” live in impossibly tall highrise condominium towers with views of the Gulf. (This was one of my favorite downtown buildings.)
The “have-nots” live here … but they also live colorfully! There was something fascinating about these laundry-festooned apartments. I would have loved to peek inside to see how the average folks live. The median annual income in Panama is $15,000.
How many satellite dishes can you count?
But there was much more to see … so we hopped aboard the blissfully air-conditioned motor coach that would tote us around the country for the next seven days.
Another contrast: The city has created a metro bus system that’s threatening to put the traditional Diablo Rojo, or Red Devil, buses, out of business. These former American school buses are privately owned and riotously decorated, blaring salsa music and twinkling with Christmas lights for nighttime visibility. We saw dozens of them racing around town and sometimes clogging the highways, endangering pedestrians. We were advised not to ride them if we wanted to get somewhere in one piece (their safety record is not the best) … but they sure looked fun. Not air-conditioned, unfortunately … but fun.
On the tour’s first morning, we were transported to Panama Viejo (old Panama), where it all began in 1519. The original settlement looked like this until it was burned and ransacked by notorious buccaneer Henry Morgan in 1671. Today, the ruins are a World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination. We walked through a small museum before we explored the ruins.
Beautiful pottery and tile designs.
We meandered around Panama Viejo for an hour. These red barriers looked like modern sculpture against the ancient stonework.
The red brick you see in the ruins is new—it supports the original structure to keep it from collapsing.
I could almost imagine we had stumbled upon undiscovered ruins in the jungle …
But the city wasn’t far away. The residents of this highrise can see where their ancestors once lived.
This Panama tree (Sterculia apetala, related to cacao ) is the national tree. “Panama” comes from an indigenous word meaning “abundance of butterflies and fish.” This tree is the guardian of butterflies and fish.
After the original town was burned, the colony moved a few miles closer to present-day Panama City. Now this area is known as Casco Viejo, or Old Town, and it’s also a World Heritage Site. It’s sometimes called the French Quarter because it bears the influence of the French, who were attempting to build the canal in the 1800s. Doesn’t it remind you of New Orleans?
Although most of the neighborhood is in serious disrepair, restoration has begun. Panama has only had full operational ownership of the canal since Dec. 31, 1999. Now, money is flowing into the country … but improvements don’t happen overnight. Carlos, our guide, enumerated the improvements made under the previous Martinelli administration (infrastructure, higher minimum wage, reduced unemployment, and free medical care), but, although he couldn’t express his personal opinion, we could infer that he was skeptical about the present Varela administration’s intentions. I noticed that progress at some new construction sites seemed to have stopped, and I wondered if they’d been abandoned because of lack of funding.
However, we saw lots of evidence of restoration in Casco Viejo, such as this building. The front wall shows promise, but the interior still needs a little upgrade.
Restoration had recently begun on this building in the cathedral square, “Plaza Mayor, Mercado Artesania Catedral.” This will be a lovely neighborhood in a few years.
Panama City was fascinating … but we had lots more to cover. In part 3, I’ll take you into the jungle … and out to the beach.
Meanwhile … Happy Halloween!