Shortly after Matt’s birthday, my parents arrived for a two week visit. It seemed a perfect opportunity to have a little adventure. We needed to do another visa run and I knew I would be bummed if our time in Costa Rica ended without us ever visiting Panama, specifically the Panama Canal. As my parents had never been there either, it was easy to convince them to come along. Almost as soon as we bought the plane tickets, Matt cued up Van Halen’s “Panama”. As the trip approached, various members of the family would occasionally burst out with a loud, “Panama! Pa-na-ma-a-a-a-a-a!”. We were pumped.
On the day of our journey we decided to try taking the bus to the airport for the first time. It was great! We walked out our front door, caught the bus in front of the house, switched buses in town and were dropped right in front of the airport. It was quick, easy and affordable. As we sped down the highway and Django curled up with his head in my lap, I realized that the thing I love most about traveling by bus with kids is the snuggling. It feels like a much more connected way to travel than by car. But I digress.
The flight from San Jose to Panama City is a mere hour. As the wheels touched down, Matt cued up “Panama” on his phone and treated the plane to the first minute or so of the song. The kids about died. It cracked me up but I suspect Matt and I were the primary revelers as no one joined us in song.
Since the glossy high rises of Panama City held little appeal for us, I had booked us a hotel in Casco Viejo or “old town”. I had done some research online and it looked like it would be a feast for the eyes. The drive from the airport takes one through the newer downtown and it looks like many metropolises, albeit with super modern, twisty buildings. But then the road hugs the seawall and suddenly the skyscrapers give way to colorful colonial buildings with peeling plaster. It looked like pictures I’ve seen of Cuba. Casco Viejo was declared a UNESCO world heritage district in 2003. The original city was founded in 1519 and was the first European settlement in the Americas. For decades Casco Viejo was forgotten as the new city expanded and the buildings fell into disrepair. After the UNESCO designation in 2003 serious restorations and gentrification began. These restorations are not complete, though, and many nearly collapsed buildings sit right next to perfectly restored ones. Indeed, our hotel was in one such restored building but sat across a narrow alley from a more rundown one. As our balcony sat over this alley, we were treated to sights of life in urban Panama. The balcony across from ours had chickens on it and one could see a constant stream of “interesting” folks issuing from a doorway directly below. Three times one of the shadier characters across from the balcony made eye contact with Matt and simultaneously did a not so subtle finger-to-nose gesture. My dad just chuckled while Matt shook his head no. Clearly old town was where you come to party. These were our first impressions as we enjoyed a bevy on the balcony and being in a new place.
Being on a tight budget and living on the top of a mountain does not lend itself well to going out to eat. Matt and I were really excited to be in a bonafide city with real restaurants. The restoration of Casco Viejo meant it had more than its fair share of restaurants representing a wide variety of cuisine, a first for us since being in Central America. That night, though, we had to find something quick as the day’s travels had made everyone a bit delirious.
I love this photo. My mom’s expression is priceless.
The next morning we headed out bright and early to explore our surroundings. It was spectacular. Here was a true colonial city, steeped in history. It was amazing to walk along cobbled streets and see buildings centuries old with trees growing from their walls, balconies and roofs.
Peering through cracks and into doorways we found that in many cases only the outer walls of the buildings remained and nature had retaken the interiors.
It was really striking to see shiny new cars parked in front of dilapidated buildings. And then some blocks were more complete in their restoration.
Some sights were just amusing and inexplicable.
We wended our way through the narrow streets until we came to the seawall at the tip of Casco Viejo. From here you could stand in the midst of the old city while gazing at the modern skyline and the Amador Causeway.
Along this promenade several people of the Guna and Embera tribes were selling traditional artwork: masks, cloth, pottery and dolls in traditional dress. The kids had an opportunity to spend some of their allowance money. Django bought a shark tooth necklace, which he wore everywhere, and Suki’s doll was our constant companion for the rest of the weekend.
I love visiting old churches but my kids aren’t quite with me on this. Suki feels like we’re intruding and Django is not too fond of the need for silence. Still, the religious statues prompted some interesting discussions about religious traditions, stories and beliefs. The tree behind me in this picture became known to us as the “Jesus Tree” because it was under its leaves that Matt explained crucifixion to the kids.
All this walking, talking and shopping built up an appetite. In the heat, the kids opted for something cold. This is shaved ice with syrup and condensed milk on top. It is somewhat similar to the shaved ice you find in Hawai’i but sweeter. Django has fond memories of this treat but Suki recently refused an offer of this, actually saying it was too sweet!
After cooling off in the pool of our hotel, we decided to make a quick stop at the Smithsonian Punta Culebra Nature Center. The descriptions I had read of this made it sound underwhelming but we had a great time. The Nature Center comprises a relatively short walk around the point of the Amador Causeway and has displays on the tides and ocean life and a very satisfying number of rescued ocean animals to see. Before we could even get to the marine life, though, this enormous iguana emerged from the brush.
Because the Center is a popular field trip for local schools he was completely unfazed by people. The kids were fascinated. I don’t think iguana sightings ever getting old.
It was difficult to tear Django away from these nurse sharks. Even after he moved on to a new display he kept coming back to gaze at them.
Aside from the animals and the informative guides, it was just a pretty place to be.
Matt had been researching restaurants to try and that night we got to go to our first cosmopolitan restaurant in nearly a year. From the outside the building appeared completely restored but then we were led through the front rooms with low ceilings to what amounted to a patio, since the roof on this section of the building had not been rebuilt. With trees and plants climbing the walls all around and stars above, the ambiance was pretty magical.
Aside from the great atmosphere, food and wine, our server was great. Originally from Venezuela he was very friendly and chatty. He even started doing magic tricks for the kids. After so many months of eating at home, it was a great night out.
The next day we went to the Panama Canal. There are several locks to visit but we went to the Miraflores Locks, which is only 20 minutes from town. We arrived simultaneously with about 10 tour buses. Thanks to a helpful blog I found, we knew to get there in the morning to see a ship actually pass through the locks, which was really impressive. This is what you see from the viewing platform before the ships comes in.
In the picture below you can see the giant arms that create a wall to block off or let in tens of thousands of gallons of water in a matter of minutes. What became clear is that the canal and corresponding locks are a way of essentially moving rapidly moving ships over hills, or changes in elevation. It’s incredible.
The locks also have an extensive museum, which has exhibits on the building of the canal, the importance of water and the operating of the canal, to name a few. The building of the canal brought many workers from China and the Caribbean, which explained the greater diversity in Panama City than I’ve noticed in Costa Rica.
I tried to capture some images of our time here but it was difficult. This is Django in a simulator of driving a ship through the locks.
And this is Suki moving through a tunnel in an exhibit about the building of the canal.
There was also a movie showing several times an hour. I hadn’t realized the canal had undergone a massive expansion that was completed in 2016 nor the extent to which the size of container ships have grown in recent years. While the movie was definitely an unapologetic celebration of consumerism and a propaganda piece for Panama and the Canal, the Panamanians are completely justified in their pride of this epic feat of engineering. It was definitely worth the visit.
All in all it was a great weekend. It was excellent to take a break from Costa Rica and see somewhere new, if only for a few days. I was surprised by how much we loved this city, and not just for the rooftop terraces and tasty restaurants.
While I can’t speak to the rest of Panama City, Casco Viejo was truly vibrant and had a lot to offer in terms of history, culture and nature. We had a blast.