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Making Sense of Panama City

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Here’s what I knew about Panama City before visiting.

I knew it had the world’s largest canal, built at a cost of up to 25,000 lives over more than three decades; that it was located on the narrowest isthmus in the Americas; that it used the US dollar but called it the Balboa; and that beyond the city was an uncharted wilderness leading to the notorious Darien Gap, an impenetrable stretch of jungle with no road passage and untold dangers from smugglers and wildlife.

Within a couple of weeks I had discovered a city cleaved between two worlds, with a foot in each: delectable gastronomic restaurants offset by greasy, tasteless food; sparkling skyscrapers linked by non-existent sidewalks; warring drug gangs and trendy bars and cafes a few streets away from one another.

Panama City is unfolding, a bit like a story book still in first draft, with much of the plot being changed during the rewrite.

Old town of Panama City

Old colonial streets of Panama City

Much of the city’s history centers around the colonial Casco Viejo (above, also called Casco Antiguo, or old town), built by the Spaniards after the English ransacked the original capital a few miles away.

Throughout the old quarter decrepit buildings are renovated overnight and resold for fortunes because, let’s face it, if I were going to live in Panama City this is where I’d be, surrounded by the sea, the view, history, a few tree-lined plazas and the best food in town. Just don’t wander off – a few streets from this breezy enclave drug gangs are still hammering away at one another, sometimes lethally.

When scouts were searching for locations to shoot part of James Bond’s Quantum of Solace, they came to Casco Viejo.

Filming of James Bond movie in Panama City

Here, the Institute of Culture is a movie stand-in for a luxury hotel in La Paz, Bolivia. It’s also where the mythical Bond seduced Strawberry Fields, a British covert MI6 agent.

Filming was underway while I was there, and I even had to move a potted plant off my balcony so it wouldn’t be in a shot. Very thrilling! For hours I watched excitedly as giant articulated trucks stuffed with lights and cameras negotiated the narrow streets and low balconies of the old town.

One humid evening, walking towards the sea, a limousine pulled away from a fancy restaurant. I approached a maid standing by a back door and gathered intelligence: actor Daniel Craig was inside, dining with Panama City notables. What a delicious (albeit brief) brush with fame. An exceedingly light brush.

Panama City: Casco Viejo under threat

Casco Viejo is a historically unique World Heritage Site, now at risk of losing its protected status unless the government modifies a major ring road it plans to build around its edge. There have been public outcries and threats by UNESCO but for the time being plans remain. The road would spoil the view, of course, but more to the point it would change the nature of the neighborhood irreparably. The government, of course, is thinking of lightening traffic and anyone who has been caught in the city’s rush hour would at least fleetingly understand official willingness to sacrifice history to traffic flow.

Traffic in Panama City

Splashes of color and handpainted designs on buses make the long waits – both for and in the bus – a bit more bearable. But the air becomes harder to breathe as vehicles assault the city, which is in constant expansion. And if the ring road does go ahead, romantic scenes like this one may lose a lot of their romance.

Panama City at dusk

Panama City is a mixture of people from many places and the growing influx of visitors contributes to this diversity. The city has ten times more hotel rooms than it did just 15 years ago, and its skyscrapers, many of them empty until recently, were symbols of spending by foreigners seeking legal investments rather than homes. These days, more lights shine in windows and the mood of the city is shifting.

Storm over Panama City

Panama City is building itself to compete, not only financially but culturally. The topsy-turvy BioMuseo, or Biodiversity Museum, isn’t open as I write but soon, soon. It is designed by architect Frank Gehry, whose wife is Panamanian. The city leaders are hoping the BioMuseo will do for Panama City what the Guggenheim’s imposing metallic curves – also by Gehry – did for Bilbao: turn it into a cultural icon.

Frank Gehry: BioMuseo in Panama City

The luxury condominiums and modernist museums hide another contrast, a reminder that not everyone has benefitted from the wealth generated by the Panama Canal since the US handed it back in 1999.

Visions of Panama City

It is an easy city to like, the people friendly and courteous and not yet blasé by the growing number of visitors, a city in the making, its energy pushing you from one neighborhood to the next.

The Panama Canal: don’t leave without seeing it

No visit to Panama City is complete without seeing the Canal.

Nothing I’d heard prepared me for the sheer proportions of it, 33m wide (110 ft), barely enough to contain today’s mega-ships. Were a sailor to lean over the side, he would touch the pier. A third set of locks are under construction and will allow even larger ships through.

Container ship in Panama Canal

Mind you, not everyone thinks it’s a tight squeeze.

Sailboats through the Panama Canal

For these modest sailboats, there was strength in numbers.

There are apparently tours of the Canal but for me the best viewpoint was right where I was, on the terrace of the Restaurant Miraflores (you’re paying for the view, not the buffet). Getting through the Miraflores Locks was a momentous occasion for sailors and they waved, smiled, and punched the air as they cleared the waterway.

They made me want to do the same.

BioMuseo photo: Wikimedia Commons. All other photos by Anne Sterck.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • Many people speak English, probably a holdover from the years of US presence in the Panama Canal Zone.
  • Walking around Panama City is complicated. Sidewalks are awful and distances deceptively large. Take taxis – they’re not expensive and you can bargain. You can walk around specific neighborhoods like Casco Viejo – it’s between neighborhoods that it becomes more difficult.
  • Safety can be an issue in some parts of Casco Viejo, which borders a few streets dominated by violent gangs who like going to war with one another. Find out where the ‘safe area’ stops – your hotel will know. At night in the Casco Viejo, stay in the well-lit and more touristy central area.
  • You’ll have to be patient but you can watch ships go through the Miraflores Locks on this webcam.
  • There are some great day trips from Panama City: the Canal, of course, but the country is so small you can get most anywhere in a day, including Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean. The longest flight, if I remember correctly, is about 50 minutes with Air Panama. The bus system, which I used all over, was fantastic and cheap.

6 Comments

  1. Gaelyn on November 25, 2013 at 4:55 am

    And here I thought it was all about the canal. Yet even though I’m not much of a city gal this looks worth exploring if/when I get to the Panama Canal.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 25, 2013 at 8:12 am

      That’s exactly what I thought. I was going to rush through and get out into the countryside but the city was actually a lot of fun, in a rough and ready way. Definitely looking for a personality and determined to find it.

  2. Tamara on December 3, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    I love Panama, got to go there during the Haiti earthquake and was there for a few weeks.
    It is actually quite USA… ised. The supermarkets are full of both USA stuff and tropical fruits and vegetables.
    I loved the trendy bars after work and the weather is exactly what I like, humid and warm/hot. Some people don’t like that but I do and guess what … it is amazing for your skin!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 3, 2013 at 6:22 pm

      I know what you mean – that mixture of Central American and USA got me, too. Living in Europe, I felt as though I had a foot on each continent while I was there… It’s definitely on my list for a return visit to all the places I didn’t get to.

  3. Mig on December 12, 2013 at 4:35 am

    Thanks for sharing the Biodiversity Museum. I’d love to visit that on the next trip after it opens. Also, good tips for traveling to Panama. When I was there last month, I took taxis around the city which are cheap. If you are in traveling in the center of the city, the cabs are about $2USD per person (at the time of this comment). If you negotiate, there is a chance you’ll still be over charged. Just don’t ask and give the money as you get out of the cab. The driver will tell you if the fare is more. If you take a cab from the bus terminal at Allbrook Mall to Casco Viejo, it’s around $4 USD. Also, Panama has some of the best shopping with tax being around 10%!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 12, 2013 at 4:52 am

      Thanks for the great tips – especially about not bargaining before a cab ride!

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