Panama is a true milestone in my career as an independent traveler. In addition to being the final country for me to visit in all of North and Central America, it is also my official 50th country traveled to. Such an auspicious ranking should call for a place that would turn out to be extraordinary, don’t you think? . . . You have no idea! I have seen some of the greatest cities in the world, from Rome to Tokyo and from Moscow to Shanghi. But let me tell you, Panama City ranks right up there in the top 3, maybe even #1. There is a definite air of New York City and old Havana to this place.
If you are a connoisseur of urbanity, if you prize the populous pavement of ports, or if you are a lover of the life that thrives and pulses amidst the cacophony of cities; this is the place. I’ll spare you more poetic waxing; suffice it to say that Panama city seems to have all of the best parts of what makes a city great: an expanding skyline that could upstage the view of Manhattan Island from the Brooklyn Bridge, an old town that rivals Havana Viejo or the French Quarter of New Orleans, and, oh . . . a little something they call the Panama Canal.
As far as Eric and I are concerned, we have just found the center of the universe. Panama City feels like the heart of the world; everything pulses through this single artery. This is not only the right city, it’s also the right time to be here. Panama City is expanding like a boom town. There are as many skyscrapers being built as there are already standing. The old town, Casco Viejo, is just now beginning the process of being restored to its original glory. Picture the Malacon in Havana being restored to how it looked in 1955. It seems Eric and I have found the sweet spot of our trip and, perhaps, our eternal port-of-call.
We arrived in Panama City on Saturday night, after a 20 hour bus ride from San Jose, Costa Rica. Although we had spent a sleepless night on the bus, and hadn’t had a real meal for nearly 24 hours, we ended up taking nearly 2 hours to find a place to stay. Eric and I have grown a little picky about where we stay, and we are usually willing to pack our backpacks around to any number of places before settling in. Making matters even more difficult for us, there was a large convention in town and nearly all the double rooms in budget and mid-range hotels were already full. We ended up settling for a dorm room at a place our guidebook recommended called Casa del Carmen. It has turned out to be a great place to stay. We spent the rest of Saturday night recovering from the hell we had put ourselves through by taking that long bus ride.
After sleeping-in on Sunday morning, we headed out to explore Panama City by foot. We started by walking down a major street called Via Espania, and headed to the old city known as Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo is located on a small outcrop of land, and is the site where the original colonial city of Panama was founded. The vast expanse of streets, buildings and skyscrapers, that now occupy the surrounding lands, all branch out from this original point.
The history of Casco Viejo is a lot like the history of Manhattan Island. Like New York City, it was once a fortified town whose boundaries were only a fraction of what the city has now expanded to become. Casco Viejo is full of colonial churches, cobblestone streets and quaint parks. The greatest part about Casco Viejo is that it is still ethnically diverse and largely poor. Like the Malacon in Havana, beautiful buildings of faded grandeur are still inhabited by the poor and working-class. Only in the past two years has a historical restoration project begun to turn this area back into the timeless beauty it once was.
On the southern tip of the Casco Viejo peninsula is an incredible lookout point called the Promenade of Vaults. The view from the promenade is certainly one of the best in the world. On the east side is a sweeping view of the skyline of Punta Paitilla, the area where most of the modern skyscrapers of Panama City now reside (picture of me with skyline above). On the west side of the promenade is an equally dramatic view of the mouth of the Panama Canal, where you can see huge cargo ships from every port and nation on the globe lining up to enter the canal. The view here is arguably better than looking off the end of Battery Park in NYC at the Statue of Liberty.
Eric and I were chilling out on the promenade, trying to take it all in, when a middle-aged gentleman struck up a conversation with us. He was wearing a baseball cap, tropical button-up shirt and a pair of Oakely sunglasses. After chatting for a while, we found out he was a 58-year-old ex-patriot named Larry.
Larry turned out to be the kind of guy Jimmy Buffett used to write songs about. He’s an ex-fishing guide from Florida who spent 4 years in Costa Rica before moving here to Panama City. He and a partner recently bought and sold 50 acres of land on Lake Gatun, a large fresh water lake created by the Panama Canal. He also owns a two bedroom apartment right near the southern tip of Casco Viejo. We hit it off so well with Larry that he ended up inviting us back to his apartment, only blocks away from the promenade. His place was a classic and had a great view of the skyline. Larry told us the time to buy property in Casco Viejo is now. He mentioned that within a few years the entire place will be restored and the prices will skyrocket. Apparently Larry has already doubled the value of his apartment in just two short years.
Larry told us all kinds of great stories about Panama City, about his 24-year-old Nicaraguan girlfriend, and his misadventures throughout Central America. Larry says “The women down here are unbelievable . . . they do everything for you; it’s just like mom.” These were true and insightful words of wisdom from Larry, a rum drinker who hasn’t been married since 1974. In addition to offering us drinks at his house, he was able to hook us up with all sorts of things. The entire time we hung out with Larry he never took off his baseball cap or sunglasses, even in his own home. In the cast of characters of our trip, Larry proved to be one of the coolest and most memorable.
By the time we exited Larry’s apartment we were totally enraptured by Casco Viejo. We speechlessly stumbled through what felt like an impressionist’s watercolor painting. We were experiencing a moment of total magic. Eric and I were drop-jawed, overcome by the terrible beauty of this place, haunted by this fleeting moment in our lives. When we finally regained our composure, we could do little else but take turns enthusiastically proclaiming this place as one of the greatest in the world. In the past I’ve felt I could easily spend a few months in one certain place or another; in Panama City, however, I feel I could spend the rest of my life.
The next day, Monday, we walked though Casco Viejo again and our impressions grew even more profound. I truly can’t say enough about it. After another leisurely stroll through the streets that will become our new neighborhood, we caught a 20 minute bus out to Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal.
There are three locks in the Panama Canal. Miraflores is the lock closest to Panama City, and it also contains a great visitor center and lookout point. After exiting the bus and walking for 15 minutes, we reached the Miraflores Center. Upon entering this large brown building, we took an elevator up to the fourth floor and walked out onto a large balcony overlooking the Lock. The view of the Panama Canal from the balcony is truly dream-like (pictures above). You could sit there all day and watch massive boats from around the world pass through.
I found it interesting to learn that most of the massive, international cargo boats in the world are designed especially to fit into the locks of the canal. Most ships come within a meter of each side of the canal. All captains have to surrender navigation of their ships to specially trained Panamanian captains that take over the duty of navigating the boats through the canals. I also learned that it was just in December of 1999 that Panama officially took complete control over the canals, and that just last year they voted to expand them.
In addition to the visual wonders of the canal, I also felt a very noticeable energy to the place. Standing on a lock of the Panama canal is like being in the center of one of the world’s chakras. As I wrote in the opening paragraph, it’s like being in the heart of the world; there is an incredible energy that flows and pulses endlessly through here.
Right now, Panama City has likely taken position #1 as far as my personal travels go. It is right in the center of everything and is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Eric and I now need to begin the process of explaining to our friends and loved ones exactly why we need to move here. In many ways, traveling the world is a way of touring different places that you might end up wanting to spend the rest of your life in. I think after 50 countries, I may have found the place. After visiting here, I can’t believe anyone in the world would not regard this city as one of the greatest. Apparently it’s a secret, a beautiful, beautiful secret. . . .
For the past few days we have been trying to find out information about a sailing boat we wanted to take to the San Blas Islands, then on to Cartagena, Colombia. We would love to experience sailing to South America, but the boat won’t depart until Saturday and this would take too much time out of our South American agenda. Since the boat trip doesn’t fit into our agenda, we’ll be trying to catch a flight to Cartegena in the next few days. Tomorrow we plan to take a world-class train trip that runs along the Panama Canal from Panama City to Colon. From there we’ll try to visit the autonomous region of the San Blas Islands.
50 countries and I couldn’t be any higher on this trip. My mind feels like the head of a matchstick that has been struck to life after years of laying dormant. I know Eric feels the same way, and everything points to making Panama City the headquarters of our empire. Did I mention the beers here cost 29 cents a bottle? Enough said . . . for now . . .