Getting to Know Panama City

Panama – February 12, 2017

Today was the day we decided to get our Panama City orientation via a full-day guided tour of the city. Our guide was Marcos, a guy in his 30s who spoke excellent English (a rare commodity around here).

He drove a very comfortable late-model Kia crossover vehicle, so it was nicer than the cabs one would usually have available. We had plenty of legroom, the ability to charge our phones if needed, and bottled water provided. It’s definitely the way to get acquainted with the city.

Panama Viejo

Appropriately enough, we visited Panama Viejo first. On the coastline of the eastern side of the city, it was the site of the original settlement in the 1500s. After it was raided by the English pirate Henry Morgan in the 1600s, the citizens packed up what was left and relocated a few miles west to a more defensible site: the area now known as San Felipe, or Casco Viejo. (That part of the tour would come later.)

While walking through the rough gravel and cobblestones of Panama Viejo, it became obvious we should have worn our new Merrell hiking shoes, which sat tauntingly back in the hotel room along with our cushy hiking socks while we toughed it out sockless in sandals.

Panama Viejo is basically just a collection of ruins: fragments of stone skeletons of what used to be a cathedral, a monastery and other buildings…and a bell tower, which has recently been reconstructed to what it would have looked like back in the day. Walking up the wooden steps to a nice vista above, you’re greeted by a recording of a bell chiming. (A little cheesy, but kind of cool.) Amazingly, the rest of the 500-year-old ruins of Panama Viejo are not off limits for preservation; people actually have weddings and other gatherings amid the ruins, and it’s very much a part of Panama City life as well as history.

Miraflores Locks

Next on the itinerary was the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks, the gateway on the Pacific end. It was packed with tourists, and honestly not that interesting to anyone who has seen barges traversing the locks and dams of the Mississippi River, the feat of engineering was a pretty amazing thing to consider

The locks were actually the key to making the Canal work. The original plan, as attempted by the French under Suez Canal architect Ferdinand de Lesseps, was for a straight cut through the isthmus. The task of cutting through the inland mountains, and millions of tons of solid rock, proved too much. By the time the French gave up, they had lost more than 20,000 people (mostly to tropical diseases) and nearly $300 million. Eventually they sold their interests to the United States, and a new plan was hatched. The Chagres River was dammed to create Gatun Lake, one of the largest manmade lakes in the world. Then a narrow channel was cut in from each coastline, along with locks that would allow water to flow into them from the lake, raising ships up to the level of the lake so they could cross to the other side.

Each ship pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to sail through the Canal, but it’s a bargain in comparison to the time and money it would take to sail around the entire South American continent. Since the U.S. ceded the Canal Zone back to Panama effective at the turn of the millennium, Panama has taken in more than $2 billion per year in fees. Yet for the 85 years the U.S. ran the Canal, Panama was paid less than $2 billion in total.

Cerro Ancon

After leaving the Miraflores Locks, we drove through the former U.S. Canal Zone administration headquarters. It included a large, stately office building and a tidy bunch of mostly vacant residential and other buildings adjacent to the highest point in Panama City: Ancon Hill.

It was a hell of a hike up the hill, and brought back memories of Cinque Terre in Italy, except 30 degrees hotter. (Did I mention it’s not here? And did I mention our new hiking shoes were blissfully idle back at the hotel?) Actually, it was no worse than the trail from Monterosso to Vernazza two years ago; it only seemed worse because we were unprepared and hot. We didn’t see any wildlife on the way up—the area has been a preserve since the U.S. abandoned it—and the top of the hill offered little but a fenced-in radio tower and a nice view of the city and the Canal.

Casco Viejo

Our next stop was Casco Viejo, aka Casco Antiguo, aka San Felipe. This is the historic center of Panama City, and the site of the city’s rebirth after the looting of Panama Viejo by Henry Morgan. The word “casco” literally means “helmet” or “shell” in Spanish, but “casco viejo” means “old town”. (“Antiguo” is just another word for “old”.)

It’s a very historic old town, of course, and loaded with boutique restaurants and hotels—very trendy and fairly pricey. We passed some indigenous people selling arts and crafts out on the seaside walkway, and saw a monument to the French: a huge rooster (symbol of France) atop a tall spire in memory of the thousands who gave their lives in the attempt to build the Canal. We would certainly be back to do justice to this essential part of the city.

Sabores del Chorrillo

After a drive down the Amador Causeway—a road built on rock extracted while building the Canal and linking the mainland with four small islands—we did a late lunch at an outdoor place adjacent to a soccer stadium not far from the sea.

I noticed the name of the place on a road sign just before we entered: Sabores del Chorrillo. I knew the name “Chorrillo” from the guidebooks warning us not to venture there, day or night. It is—along with Curundu—one of the most notorious slums in Panama City…but it wasn’t always this way.

Years ago, it was a tradition for families to go to this neighborhood for their special fried fish. The barrio was always impoverished and racked by unemployment, but things took a turn for the worse with the U.S. invasion of 1989. Manuel Noriega had built a private residence on one of the islands just down the Amador Causeway, and Chorrillo became the focal point of the invasion. When the Panamanian army was disbanded following the invasion, the barrio—never properly reconstructed and still looking like a war zone—was overrun by street gangs trying to eke out a living on petty theft, strongarm robbery and kidnapping. Soon people quit coming to the restaurants for their beloved fish, and the good people of Chorrillo lost one of the few good things they had to hold onto. Recently, however, the city government stepped in and established a little strip of land just across the busy highway where local residents could bring back the “flavors of Chorrillo” in a more family-friendly, well-policed setting. Marcos didn’t always take his clients here, but after talking with us and knowing where our hearts and palates were, he knew we would appreciate the story…and the food.

Our lunch was simple, but sublime. Red snapper (whole, my choice) and sea bass (filleted, Lisa’s choice), were fried to crispy perfection and washed down with local beer. I found Panamanian food to be generally on the bland side, but the local homemade hot sauce, made with a chile called aji chombo—a capsicum chinense related to the Scotch bonnet and habanero—was wicked hot. The proprietor of our particular eatery (there are six or seven different seafood stands) was Dominican, and our fish was served with Caribbean-style rice cooked with black beans and coconut.

More than a really good lunch, it was an inspiring story of redemption for a neighborhood that gets nothing but terrible press in the guidebooks. Best of all, we felt completely safe and at home with these everyday families out enjoying a beautiful day, laughing and eating incredibly fresh fish.

Winding Down

When we returned to the hotel, it was naptime (I’m sensing a pattern here). For dinner, we found a fantastic little Italian place called La Vespa, just a few blocks from the hotel.

The appetizer was salmon carpaccio, smoked, with avocado and capers. Absolutely stellar. The wood-fired pizzas on the menu were speaking to us, so we each got one. Lisa’s had mozzarella, smoked cheese, and anchovies; mine was mozzarella, blue cheese and hot salami. It was one of the best pizzas ever, washed down with a really tasty Italian red called Tartufo Nero (“black truffle”). We’re thinking we’ll be back!

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