I think one of the most remarkable things about flying into Panama City is seeing all the ships out in the harbor waiting to cross through the Panama Canal. Yes, the skyscrapers are incredible with their unique architectural designs, dizzying heights, and sheer numbers. Yes, you saw the Atlantic a heartbeat ago but now you are over the Pacific. But the ocean dotted with the hundred lights of lonely ships in good company makes you feel so small as you come in for a landing in this small but powerfully placed Central American country.
This was my first trip to Central America, and my first trip somewhere I didn’t speak the language. Despite my conversational French and few weeks of Duolingo Spanish, I was still pretty helpless, and my struggles getting through border control, collecting my baggage, and getting through customs was a harsh foreshadowing of some trials to come. But thanks to friendly strangers who can recognize a poorly concealed look of bemusement following airport announcements and the timely response of my friend Zach with his exact address I’d be staying at (which border control demanded even though Panama seems to severely lack specific addresses for just about everything), I was out the airport doors and into the thick Panamanian humidity.
I would be spending my first few days in Panama City staying with Zach and Christine, friends I met in Wisconsin and who are living in Panama for 10 months while Christine teaches English. Zach picked me up from the airport, and I’m very grateful that he did. Even just figuring out how to get to the buses was a trial. If you’re trying to catch a bus from the airport, you need to follow a sidewalk between two arbitrary buildings, cross an official looking parking lot, follow a walkway that seems impossibly long after getting off a cramped plane, and race across the same road twice…or was it three times? Welcome to Panama.
Declining to hop on the smaller “chiva” buses that sped by with men hanging out the doors calling out their destinations, we boarded an official bus that would take us to the metro station. I felt dwarfed as we sped across the Cinta Costera, a highway that juts out into the Pacific and gives a fantastic view of the massive condominiums in some of the swankier parts of town. We switched over to the metro to complete our journey to Zach’s apartment, and I admit I was impressed, but that’s for another blog post. Once we arrived, I enjoyed a heaping portion of Zach’s famous lasagna and met their kitten Arriba. Arriba is a wild little cat that was rescued from an elevator, and Zach and Christine are watching her during their stay in Panama. I’ve never met a more energetic kitten!
Despite the unseasonal rain, I was able to enjoy the fantastic views from Zach and Christine’s apartment when I woke up for my first full day in Panama. The city seems somehow more vast in the daylight, and being up on the 21st floor certainly helped. After a quick breakfast, Zach and I took the metro to Cinco de Mayo station, which was the closest stop to Avenue Central, a main street with tons of shops, loud music, and people touting their wares on individual microphones and speakers out into the street. It was hard to ignore the massive anti-American mural painted onto the wall at the metro exit. Many Panamanians don’t take kindly to the American ousting of Noriega, their president in the 1980s, as was made very obvious by the large graffiti-style artwork.
Avenida Central was packed, and apart from tourists and local Panamanians, I spotted several women from the indigenous tribes of Panama, set apart with their beautiful dresses rife with color. The sun was hot, but we were temporarily relieved from the heat as Zach led me down a closed-in market to see more of the local crafts. Shops sold lacy dresses and tembleques, which are beaded hairpieces that many Panamanian women wear in their hair, especially during festivals and holidays. Many artisans were working on their craft right there in their booths, and it was a delight to watch them work so skilfully.
For my first Panamanian lunch, I enjoyed fresh ceviche and a passion fruit cocktail at Tantalo, and we satisfied our sweet tooth with paletas. I absolutely adore paletas – they fast became and remained my favorite treat in Panama. Paletas are essentially ice cream treats on sticks that come in a vast array of flavors and toppings, a few of my favorites being nutella, guava cheesecake, and strawberry with condensed milk filling. The day they come to the US en masse can’t come too soon.
We continued to explore Casco Viejo, the oldest part of the city and a dedicated UNESCO world heritage site. This was a gentrified part of town, and from the main square you could see many restored colonial-style buildings. Mere blocks away was some of the poorest parts of town, the line of demarcation so blatant that a pristine building was next to one literally crumbling into ruin. But I would be entering those areas later – for now, to explore Casco Viejo. For it being January, it was wondrous to be so warm and surrounded by flowers. We walked through several green spaces with towering trees and brilliant flowers, then explored more artisan booths out on a coastal walkway. I admired the molas, hand stitched panes of fabric made into colorful designs by the Guna people, and little figurines carved out of palm seeds, also known as palm ivory.
The intricate skyline of condos was ever present along the coastline, and it was slightly surreal to be browsing the art of the indigenous peoples while the towering and architecturally absurd buildings remained in view. Zach and I briefly admired a much smaller tower – an obelisk dedicated to the failed French effort to build the Panama Canal, years before the Americans did. Mildly depressing, but hey, lessons learned. On our way back to the central part of Casco Viejo, I decided to buy an iconic Panama Hat. When in Panama, right? After browsing several shops for one with the right fit and the color hat band I wanted, we were finally sold a hat by a beaming man who was absolutely convinced one size down was better for my head, casually jamming his knee into the hat to stretch it out. Sold. I love it.
After enjoying a coffee in a cafe that was experiencing a power outage (evidently quite the norm, as explained by the cafe worker as he untangled a spaghetti bowl of extension cords to share power with his neighbor across the street), Zach and I discussed the merits of taking public transport to the Amador Causeway or just heading home. The Amador Causeway is a long strip of land made from the rock taken out for the canal, and sports a scenic walkway and many shops. However, it was getting late and the traffic was picking up, so we returned to the apartment for some rooftop swimming and panoramic views. We were even graced by a triple rainbow over the city.
For dinner we enjoyed arepas with pulled chicken and pork rind. Arepas are sort of like thick tortillas made out of ground maize or cooked flour, and they’re most prominent in Columbian and Venezualan cuisine. My dish came slathered in sauce, a common theme I would soon find. We ended the evening meandering back to the apartment as I enjoyed one more paleta. No shame – it was vacation, and this was Panama.