Panamá has always held a special place in my imagination. My mother was born there, in Almirante, and emigrated to the U.S. when she was small. The country is currently very much in transition–last year, Panamá had 2 million visitors, a number that’s already risen to 2.2 million this year. Compare that to Costa Rica’s 10 million per year, and you see the possible rapidity of growth.
Trump was built in 2007. Las Clementinas in 2010. The American Trade Hotel in 2013. (It’s worth noting–all three were built by New Yorkers, not Panamanians.) Casco Viejo is in the midst of a major revitalization. Still, there’s contrast:
Low, tin-roofed houses under the direct shadow of luxury high rises, and the twisted jenga of the BBA building, and billboards for Black Friday. Street food stalls cooking meat, or selling tropical fruit and jugo de caña, set up in front of Chuck E. Cheese. A modern bus line, and the construction of a subway to the limits of the city, but also the commonplaceness of the city’s old transport: converted school busses painted in the style of psychedelic 1980’s cartoons, twin steampunk gas pipes rising up their backs, some with graphic comics, some with magenta shark tails finning their back.
Outside of skyscrapered Panamá City, most buildings are flamboyantly painted, with hand-drawn shop signs and local advertisements to match. Concrete apartment blocks are splashes of cerulean blue, orange, yellow, a checkered smile of laundry drying across balconies.
The humidity is sometimes overwhelming.
Prices are still relatively inexpensive: four local beers cost $10, even at the fancy tourist rooftop bar. (US dollars are accepted everywhere.)
Finally, we could never have experienced what we did in the time we had if not for Juan José Calvache Arango, a guide at our hotel. He was a font of knowledge. Thank you so much, Juan.
* I will mention as a disclaimer: I was only in Panama for four days; I’m sure I missed so many gems, and so much culture. I only included the spots I really loved and would recommend without reservation. This is as much a record for myself as it is a guide for others. If you live in Panamá City, I’d love to hear your opinions about my finds (or better yet, what I didn’t find) in the comments. This is where I went and what I saw in November 2015; in case you should find a broken link in future.