Panama’s capital city, the imaginatively named Panama City, is located on the country’s Pacific coast, right at the entrance to the glorious feat of engineering: The Panama Canal. (More on that badboy another time, pals) Although we docked in Colón, on the Caribbean side of the country, the distance overland between the two coastlines is only about 50 miles, so it was basically a given that we should head on over to the capital at some point during our time visiting this beautiful country.
First: the historical bit
Like most of South and Central America, Panama was inhabited by a whole load of indigenous tribes right up until the Europeans came on over (in Panama’s case the Spaniards were the conquerors who truly conquered all) and started hunting for gold and building grandiose cities. Panama City was founded in 1519, and back in those days it was an important point for those explorers who would eventually venture further South into Peru and beyond; the trade in silver and gold meant that this place was truly a prosperous one. However, approximately 150 years later, the city was burnt to cinders and plundered for all the wealth that could possibly be found, all in the name of England. It was a Welsh pirate named Henry Morgan who led the attack on the city, although back in England he was treated as a hero rather than a murderous scallywag, which just goes to show there are two sides to every story, ya know? After the burning, a new city was built not far from the rubble, and this area is now known as Casco Viejo.
Related: Visiting an Emberá Village in Panama
A city of extremes
Driving to Casco Viejo through the rest of the city is a strange experience, full of bizarre contrasts. When the Panama Canal was built, there was a massive US presence in the country (including areas which only US citizens were allowed to enter), which in some ways really helped the infrastructure of the city: health and sanitation drastically improved, and there was a far greater flow of money into the country in general. Parts of the city reminded me of Miami; filled with dazzling modern skyscrapers overlooking the beach with people rollerblading along the seafront. In contrast to this, we also drove through slums packed to the brim with families squashed into crumbling concrete apartment blocks, and children playing in the street amongst piles of rubbish. Passing through Panama City in a shiny bus full of tourists gave me some very conflicting emotions that I wasn’t altogether comfortable with; despite the fact that the country has recently joined the list of the world’s highest-income countries, 18% of its citizens live in poverty and there’s clear evidence of that everywhere you turn.
Once we got to Casco Viejo, I’ll be honest- we weren’t exactly sure where to go, but this is the kind of place that’s perfect for getting lost in, despite the fact it’s actually rather on the small side. Filled with pastel coloured Spanish colonial mansions and majestic churches, the whole area was once a very dangerous place to hang out if you weren’t a member of a gang (or even if you were), although gentrification and a UNESCO World Heritage classification has transformed it into a highly fashionable location. Even if you have no idea where you’re going, you’re guaranteed to stumble upon somewhere intriguing, whether that’s an old ruined church or a boutique selling handmade local delights. When some proper fat raindrops begin to fall despite the humidity, we took shelter in probably one of my favourite places that we discovered that day- the Selina Embassy. Selina is a chain of hostels and workspaces that are currently in locations across South and Central America, with the ethos that they want to create a community and give back to the local area of each one. The amazingly friendly lady behind the counter told us we could stay and use WiFi as long as we wanted, gave us tips for where to go in the area, and obviously explained what the company actually is. I felt bad that I was only in Casco Viejo for a mere couple of hours, as Selena seemed like the perfect people to help you explore.
Dancing with the Devil. And eating all the food.
Of utmost importance to me and my pal Tayler-Beth was that we managed to eat some actual real live Panamanian food whilst in Panama, and we were informed by the lovely guy on the bus that a nearby restaurant called Diablicos would be perfect if that was really what we wanted. So that is exactly where we headed. I was mildly alarmed to discover a ginormous statue of a devil-guy stood by the door of the restaurant as a greeting to all who entered. Not your normal welcome, you know? Entering the restaurant, we were presented with many more colourful devil-faces leering menacingly down at us from the walls in the form of masks. It turns out that across Panama, devil-dances are a traditional part of life, with each area having a slightly different look for their diablicos, hence the variety of extreme-looking masks that people wear to dance their dances. The devil-dances actually have their roots in European culture, and normally take place during the festival of Corpus Christi; back in the 16th century when the Spanish were busy conquering these parts, they were also busy converting people to Christianity, and the idea of the devil-dance also took hold (apparently) as it was deemed a great way to celebrate the conversion of the locals from their ‘evil’ beliefs to ‘good’ Christian ones. On a side note, Panamanian food isn’t particularly well-known across the world, but the food here was downright brilliant; eat ceviche, patacones (fried plantain), sancocho (a type of chicken soup with coriander), and anything coconut or corn-based, and you’re probably in for a treat. Weirdly considering the abundance of fresh fruit available, the only time that I ever saw it on the menu anywhere in Panama was in a smoothie, and fresh vegetables don’t seem to be widely consumed either- it’s all about the fried goods around here.
Check out the city from above
Casco Viejo is overfilling with trendy looking cafes stocking the most delicious coffee, and although we did indeed grab a coffee later in the day, we were advised to head to a rooftop bar to see the city from a really good vantage point, and there’s also no shortage of these. We headed to Casa Casco, who’s roof terrace has views of the city skyline inland, and the bay out to sea with ships waiting to enter the canal; and even aside from this amazing 360 degree it’s a downright splendid-looking place in itself to have a cocktail or two. Monochrome and beautiful, it again really hammered home the bizarre contrast not just here in Panama City between the rich and the poor, but in pretty much the whole world.
This is an ultra-cool, ultra-baffling and ultra-beautiful place. We wandered the streets some more, running into pretty mansions and glamorous hotels, the tumbling-down facades of hundreds-of-years-old churches and scatterings of brightly coloured flowers galore, mixed with every now and then an abandoned old house with open, shutterless windows. A family of vultures were nesting in one, and I spied one of the vulture-family hopping across from one window to the balcony of the window opposite, just like the pigeons do at home. Casual. And ever so slightly creepy.
There’s a tourist police station in the locality and a strong sensation that the police are always present in Casco Viejo, in a way that they possibly aren’t so present in other parts of the city- like the areas we’d passed on the way there. I’d be interested to hear or see what the rest of Panama City is like in comparison to this beautiful part of town, but alas pals- for now a few hours was all that was possible to me. So I’ll just have to go back, won’t I?
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU VISIT PANAMA CITY
- Panamanian currency is either the Balboa, or the US dollar. You’ll have no trouble paying for things in US dollars here, although some places will give you change in Balboa regardless of what currency you pay in.
- I never felt unsafe in the Casco Viejo area; it’s a highly touristic location with a strong police presence, but it’s not so busy that I feared getting pickpocketed like in bigger cities like London or Rome.
- Prices for food and drinks in Casco Viejo were comparable to prices at home- don’t come here expecting the dirt cheap price tags of some other South and Central American countries.
- English is widely spoken, however if you know Spanish you’ll be in a far stronger position than having just the one language!