I landed in Panama City on a very pleasant sunny afternoon and am greeted with a longer than expected walk to the immigration desks, where unlike other Latin cities, the immigration procedures are more rigid. After collecting my baggage, in typical fashion I had several taxi drivers shouting out fares (all at a premium rate of course) and in the end I accept one for US $35. On my journey to my hostel in the old town, I passed through the city centre and am wowed by the plethora of skyscrapers and shopping malls on a bay that can be likened to Miami. Panama City is truly a city spewing in wealth.
On arrival at my accommodation Luna Castle Hostel, it instantly had the feel of a party hostel within a township of Casco Viejo. On entering the building it can be likened to an old fashioned haunted house on the verge of collapse. I walked up the stairs and found my way to the reception where table tennis, pancake tossing and US $1 local beers surrounded me. The view of the city skyline fell upon me as I entered my dorm, and it was truly representative of a cosmopolitan city where foreign investment has dawned upon it.
In the evening, I went to the bustling Tántalo restaurant a few doors down from my hostel with fellow backpackers. What was striking about this restaurant was the colour coordinated decorations, and this was complimented by some gloriously delicious local delicacies on the menu. Moreover the presentation of my chicken dish was a rhapsody of divine flavours interspersed with a sour tomato taste infused with the sweetness of plum topped off with a fiery kick of chilly. Thereafter we went to the rooftop bar of the restaurant where the sound of local music and illustrious artistic displays were prevalent.
The following morning I took a tour bus bound for the Panama Canal. Our driver was very informative and spoke excellent English, as we conversed over the dynamics of the cities we are all from. The Panama Canal needs no introduction. It has now surpassed its hundredth anniversary and has made trade between the Atlantic and Pacific all the more practical and efficient. During my visit to the canal museum, I imagined a civil engineer feeling at one with the surroundings.
I was fortunate enough to see a ship passing through whilst at the viewing point, thereby witnessing the mechanics of the canal put into practice. Approximately 14,000 ships pass through the canal every year with its gates operating on hydraulics. It is highly advisable to go and visit the canal before 2:30pm as you are likely to witness ships passing through. It has been widely stated that Panama City is built on drug money. Indeed, when I asked a local guide where is all the money coming from to extend the canal and build these glittering skyscrapers, his response was ‘Colombian and Venezuelan investment’ and the reader has the freedom to interpret this as he or she sees fit.
Fish Market Casco Viejo
The variety and presentation of the fish throughout this market was beyond excellent, and the service provided gave a sense of a very sit down at home meal feel to it. Knowing key words such as ‘Ceviche’ (fish) and ‘Pollo’ (chicken) go a long way to ensuring that the dishes you order meet your expectations.
A nice bit of innovation was the plastic glove provided to customers in order to devour the divine taste of the local delicacies whilst preventing the inevitable grease smothering your hands. Moreover waiters provided diners with a hand washing service at their table. To wet one’s appetite, the stench of the fish is soon superseded when the chef takes over and proves beyond doubt that this was the catch of the day quite literally.
Ciudad de Dios
On the final day of my stay in Panama City, I came to hear about an ex gang members (formerly known as Ciudad de Dios) tour run by Fortaleza Tours, where they take you through their old stomping ground. Much to my surprise my hostel and indeed the general tourists were unaware of such a tour, and were most intrigued by it. Given the unfortunate past and present of Latin culture, organised crime and violence remains endemic in the society, and this tour demonstrates how ex members of these gang groups are now attempting to reintegrate back into society through the initiatives of the Esperanza Social Venture Club. We met our tour guides outside the American Trade hotel in Casco Viejo. He started by explaining how some of the most infamous gang members resided in this building that is now a pristine piece of architecture, where rapid gunfire was once an all too familiar occurrence between rival gang members. Along the hotel’s stairways were depictions and messages relating to gang culture. This provides a vivid illustration of a chilling past.
On departing the hotel we carried on our walk through the townships, where the dangerous and uncertain ambience looms in the background. Indeed, the burden was felt heavily on one’s shoulder as we became aware of the surroundings, from which at times there is no escape should you dare venture into the wrong part of town. This element of danger was also tantamount to excitement and it is not for the faint hearted. We were made of aware of the fact that not all gangs have signed up to the reintegration program and as such their ‘territory’ remains out of bounds for those gang members who have decided to cross the boundary line. Our tour guide explained to us in a heavy that these ex gang members still have certain buttons in them that can be pressed, and can be likened to a tranquilliser in order to maintain their calm demeanour despite having daemon like tempers in their prime.
The final leg of the tour was a trip to an ex gang members nightclub where they now ‘rap’ about their life and issues with the current government. The scene it created can be likened to the American movie Compton. The atmosphere provided an aura of invincibility and it is possible to imagine what this club would have been like at its prime with gang members swamping the floorspace.
I departed Panama City the following morning with a sense of fulfilment that I had immersed myself into the local culture of this fascinating city, where old meets new, and the title of my article is befitting of the surroundings of the bay area. The weather in Panama City is consistent all year round and typically you can expect temperatures in the range of 25 C – 30 C, and it is never too humid but instead dry heat. WIFI is certainly not lacking and safety is not an issue, providing that you follow the simple and very advisable instructions of local knowledge based people in not venturing into no zone areas. In the main, this is a city that prides itself on cleanliness and banks of greenery immersed in the backdrop of the city’s skyline. I therefore highly recommend a visit to this city that can be likened to a Molotov cocktail.