The bigger the city is in Central America, the more chaotic and stressful the experience tends to be…for me. Not to mention they’re generally dirtier, more polluted and sketchier. Needless to say, I’m more fond of smaller towns and avoid stopping in the larger cities if at all possible. Panama City, with over 1.2 million people, turned out to be a pleasant exception to my rule. The previous few weeks were filled with travel days and stopping for an average of 2 days at a time in various cities. Burn out and travel apathy was starting to settle in and the perfect cure was staying put in Panama City for an entire week. It was a welcomed change to not feel rushed to fit in all the sites and to indulge with a few lazy days.
From the Marbella area downtown it was possible to walk a few miles along the water down to the old town, Casco Viejo. Along the way there was a fish market to check out (I opted for the shaved ice topped with condensed milk!) as well as beached boats at low tide. Casco Viejo was lovely. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, some buildings date back to the 1600s. In stark contrast to the modern portion across the bay, these aging buildings display intricate balconies and I even found the crumbling remnants charming. You could see the money being poured into the area as streets were being re-laid and buildings reconstructed. From there it was a quick taxi ride to the back on Acon Hill where a short hike to the top promised amazing views of the city and the entrance to the Panama Canal. For the second time on the trip, though, I was caught in a wild thunderstorm. Not 5 minutes after getting out of the taxi and starting to walk up the hill did the skies open and thunder shake the earth. This area seemed to be a semi-ritzy ex-pat area; I parked myself under one of their driveway awnings to wait it out. Over an hour later, the peacefulness of watching the rain fall in sheets lifted so I cut my losses and headed back down the hill for a cab home.
Metropolitan Park is an oasis in Panama City. A few miles outside of downtown and you’re out of the concrete chaos and onto quiet trails where the only noise is from your shoes on the trail and creatures communicating. Hiking up to the Mirador there were successful sightings of one sloth sleeping in a tree incredibly high up and three 4 titi monkeys snuggled into a tree hole. From the top there was a decent view of the city in most directions and on the hike down there was a different species of monkeys flying between the trees. To see so much wildlife less than 10 minutes from the hostel was incredible.
When it is hot and humid or the afternoon rain rolls in, there is always the huge air-conditioned mega malls to wander through. I experienced a bit of culture shock strolling by pricey store after pricey store and also became highly conscious of my backpacker-bum attire. Inside this mega-mall was also a luxury movie theater. A matinee show was only $3 (Batman!). This theater also asked you to select your seat on a touch-screen while buying a ticket at the register. Love this idea! It may sound slightly crazy to someone sitting in an office cubicle right now, but this was one of my favorite afternoons in Panama. Something about the familiarity of it or being able to relax and shut off the travel planning/doing mode for several hours was really pleasant.
It was really hot out. Sticky. The hostel was suffocating with one crowded common room and the same surfing video looping all day, every day. There was one other idea for things-to-do on a hot day. The Hard Rock Hotel was just down the street. And they had an alright pool – supposedly.
In Part II, the main reason for visiting Panama City – The Panama Canal – comes to fruition.