Panama City is a vibrant city of bold contrasts. A place where tradition meets modernity, where ruins stand amidst skyscrapers and where there exists a convergence of old and new side-by-side. New constructions are popping up everywhere while old ones are being renovated, both witness to the country’s ever-expanding economic growth. This small country, the last stop on the Central American trail, is definitely worth more than just a quick glimpse on the way to somewhere else. Located on the doorstep of South America, Panama has throughout its history seen – and continues to see – the passage and settlement of a variety of different cultures. Omnipresent skyscrapers dominate the skyline and historic buildings are cherished. As a result, Panama City is a colorful collage of old and new world charm, a city full of diversity with a variety of things to see and do.
Getting around Panama City by car requires nerves of steel and is not recommended. Even if you have a map or a GPS, driving is a navigational nightmare. Many streets do not have names and some of the streets that do have names change them several times along their routes. Aside from congested traffic conditions, the noise and pollution are incessant. Especially audible were the conspicuous, smoking, pimped-out school buses with sputtering, thundering and howling dragster-style double exhaust pipes fit for a semi-truck – though they are beautifully adorned with highly colorful and original designs.
A car is recommended, though, if you want to go to the beach in the outlying areas that are about ninety minutes outside of the city, where beautiful golden and black sandy beaches dot the coastline near the popular retirement destination of Coronado. To make an easy escape, head south across the famous Bridge of the Americas, which connects the continents and straddles the Canal, and simply follow your nose to the tantalizing ocean breezes and be led to one of many beautiful, virtually deserted beaches along the Pacific coast.
Strolling along the Calzadade Amador, which connects four small islands to the city, you can take in more panoramic views of the skyscrapers that line the horizon, and the lush mountains in the distance. Here you can enjoy a repose from the city’s madness, although the tranquility and silence is almost eerie in contrast to the brouhaha of the rest of the city. It is here where the conspicuous, massive and colorful Biodiversity Museum-to-be is being built, designed by famous architect, Frank Gehry and clearly visible from the Casco Viejo and to vessels entering the Canal. Up close, it is a ginormous hollow incongruent structure made up of several oblique roof beams resembling a crumpled origami of a pterodactyl.
A visit to Panama City without a visit to the Canal would be like visiting Pisa without seeing the Leaning Tower. The Canal slices through the Isthmus of Panama from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans, reducing the amount of seafaring travel significantly. A first attempt to build it was made by the French at the end of the 19th century, but failed due to engineering problems and a large death toll due to disease. Its completion wasn’t until the Americans took over the project at the beginning of the 20th century and, after the decade it took to complete, it was classified as one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. Perched in a visitor’s centrehigh above the Miraflores Locks, I watched mesmerized as if on deck of a giant cruise liner as the procession of vessels waited to enter the locks, a two-lane waterway that forms part of the canal. Enormous ships gracefully squeezed their way into the lanes as water levels rose and lowered almost imperceptibly.
The eyes of Panama City’s historical Casco Viejo– or ‘old quarter’ – are the windows to its soul and are, at the same time, fixed upon the future. Taking in the sights, scents and sounds at the heart of the Casco Viejodistrict (also known as Casco Antiguo or San Filipe), I delighted in photographing rundown abandoned buildings, and in capturing the modern skyline in the distance through the skeleton of window frames.
The Altar de Oro (Golden Altar), once located in (Panama Viejo), can now be seen in the Iglesias de San José in the Casco Viejo. Legend has it this ornate massive golden altar had once been painted black in order to protect and hide it from pirates during the time when Panama Viejo had been ransacked and pillaged.
Founded in 1519, Panama Viejo was the first permanent settlement of Panama City. It had once been a great and mighty city, from which gold and silver was sent to Spain but after having grown from 100 to 10,000 inhabitants, it suffered several fires, earthquakes and attacks by pirates and indigenous people until utterly destroyed. It was then re-established to what is now the Casco Viejo district, though partial remnants of the ruins of Panama Viejo still stand, like the cathedral’s tower (Torre de Panama Viejo), a photographic gem that, sadly, should be avoided at night. Another impressive torreis the modern spiral tower located in downtown Panama. It is one of many impressive architectural designs that are synonymous with Panama City’s attention to estheticism.
Sauntering through the Casco Viejo one can admire the many plazas, churches, awe-inspiring views, markets and shops filled with hand-made Panamanian crafts, as well as a lively mix of locals and tourists. Here, newly renovated Spanish colonial-style homes, reminiscent of Cuba, mingle with more modest crumbling dwellings. A stroll through the Casco Viejo is never dull. A crazy mix of baroque/classical/salsa and electronic dance hits all wrapped up into one eclectic sound can be heard blaring out of bars and restaurants, or visitors can sit calmly on one of the plazas listening to numerous local species of birds simultaneously singing, chanting and calling.
Dining in the Casco Viejo on light, healthy and inexpensive meals, I lounged on restaurant terraceswhile sipping one of the abundant flavors of delicious exotic fruit smoothies and feasted on scrumptious seafood. At all hours of the day, one can appreciate fresh fruit and traditional Panamanian dishes.
Intrigued by an article in the Visitor/El Visitante, Panama City’s free newspaper, I went to the Villa Agustina, a large alternative events’ venue in the Casco Viejo, to get a feel for the nightlife. Featured were an electronic music DJ from Panama who’d previously been living in Berlin, an interior courtyard lined with balconies, a beautiful starlit roof over my head, and a tub of free all-you-can-drink beer! It was a great ending to my day but don’t be fooled: there are parts of the Casco, however charming, that are dangerous and crime infested and should be avoided.
From salsa clubs to electronic music DJs, European-style cuisine to American fast-food joints, quiet plazas to hectic boulevards, the possibilities are simply endless. There is something for everyone in Panama City. A fantastic paradox between old and new, rich and poor, hectic and calm, it can at times seem too much for the eyes and ears to handle. In spite of that however, or because of it, this city is so alive and vibrant, and is one in which an atmosphere is created that is as loud and as bright as the colors. It is a rising and fearless metropolis, which has to this day risen against all odds.