When we first moved to Budapest, there was a huge banner that spanned across the New York Hotel. It said “Opening Soon”. That was in 2001. The hotel did not open until 5 years later. Our Lonely Planet book, which is 3 years out of date states that the Casco Viejo area of Panama City is in the process of being gentrified and should be completed in the near future. That was 2010.
Casco Viejo, meaning old compound, is where the Spanish moved their city after Henry Morgan destroyed the original city they had developed. According to our ‘host’ it is only a 40 minute walk. That seemed reasonable, so we headed out. The most scenic route was to walk the promenade along the shoreline. This was an exquisite decision; however, it was strange that at low tide, there is no water other than puddles along what should have been the shoreline, let alone any remnants of a beach.
The highlight of this route was not on the waterside, but the landside or causeway. For 2 kilometers, we walked this promenade, which is stunningly beautiful. There the scenery alternated between children’s playgrounds, outdoor fitness machines in perfect condition, lush manicured gardens, and a small meditation park within a park complete with a waterfalls. There are separate walking and bike paths and there are turn offs at various points where you can climb a small hill for a better view or walk around it and sit for a spell. A part of this was reminiscent of Guayaquil in Ecuador, but less commercial. There were no food stands or shopping places here at all, only nature.
Being prime real estate, the high rises directly across the street are 30 or more stories with amazing architecture that is mod, modern, or quirky. Any direction you look in, there is some eye candy to satisfy your cravings and all calorie free.
As directions go, there were no surprises with those we received. The 40-minute walk, turned out to be an hour and a half before we set our eyes on Casco Viejo. We felt like that old TV commercial where the announcer states “Welcome Pilgrim, your search has ended.” The question was “Was it worth the effort?” Almost immediately, facing you are dilapidated buildings that some would classify as slum-like. More than one building had the doors opened wide due to the heat; they resembled a place for squatters rather than one having been in the process of being upgraded over the last 3 years. Not all was lost, there were stores and cafés, which have seen the almighty dollar, transform them from tattered and tacky to upscale and in vogue.
We stopped for coffee in one such establishment. A Black couple ran it. I would venture to say they were US African-American transplants. Their perfect English had an eastern tingle in the accent, they perfect bagels, and a book by Virginia Hamilton amongst other books. When the lady found the bathroom was being monopolized by one customer, her perfect English again betrayed her origins as did the way she pronounced ‘occupado’. One espresso latte, one smoothie and a bagel was $14.00, giving Starbucks the opportunity to say how inexpensive they really are in comparison.
According to our guidebook, the cobble streets added to the charm. Brick has since replaced them; nary one cobblestone has survived. In Plaza de la Independencia, we witnessed the local crew putting up the Christmas tree quite similarly to the type of tree we had in CA. This plaza is where Panama declared its independence from Columbia in 1903.
Other sites were the Plaza de Francia commemorating the French role in building the canal. The French lost 22,000 workers from France, Guadeloupe, and Martinique due to malaria and yellow fever. A statue of Cuban physician Carlos Finlay also decorates this plaza. He is the one to discover how mosquitoes transmit yellow fever.
Another attraction of this area is the Panama Viejo ruins, which according to the book, we could explore independently. These were the ruins of old churches and other buildings from historic times, but they are all now guarded with fencing. Not even paying an admission allows entrance. Being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, makes me wonder how prestigious this designation happens to be after all. Yes, there are many charming parts of this section, but they butt up with buildings that are being held up with steel supports from the street.
One realtor’s office window had signs offering flats for sale starting at $450,000. It would seem reasonable to expect the entire area to be gentrified, before suggesting such fees.
We hunted down this restaurant written about in the book. It is called Café Coca-Cola. Still open for business, it was filled with locals and we discovered the reason. The food was great, but cheap. We both ate lunch and with drinks, the bill came to $10.59.
Afternoon heat is horrendous, so we decided to take a taxi and test the stories that it will only cost $1-$2. Our first attempt, the driver wanted $12. No fare for you! The second one offered the ride for $5. We accepted and went straight to the travel agency to arrange for a tour for tomorrow.
We returned to the horrendously expensive grocery store for some supplemental supplies for dinner. We will eat in tonight and watch the birds at the feeder.