Panama

Posted on September 24, 2018

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Panama is a paradoxical place. The shiny skyscrapers at the heart of global capitalism are the first thing that hit you on the ride out of the airport. A floating Gotham city. The area reminds me of parts of Manila. The fastest route to Casco Antiguo (old compound) is on the coastal belt highway (cinta costera). It was finished almost ten years ago to a tune of $189m USD. This is a city stuffed full of casinos, yachts and laundered money.

Casco Viejo (old town) is a charming, atmospheric neighbourhood with an ocean view. It’s build like a grid and is packed full of dilapidated colonial buildings, weather beaten over time. Walking the streets today transported me back twenty years when I visited Havana. But like everywhere gentrification is slowly starting to take over. Beautiful crumbling buildings in this historic area, ( a world UNESCO Heritage Site), are being replaced.

I’m staying at a simple hostel smack bang in the middle of a safe and cute neighbourhood in the old town. The dorm is mixed, and thankfully large enough not to be affected by other people’s stuff strewn all over the floor. I was never like that at 20-something. I checked in last night, took a cold shower and found a local restaurant and ate a simple seabass ceviche with broccoli before hitting the sack. Nine hours later I woke up jet-lag pretty much kicked.

The sky in Panama has been heavy with grey clouds. It’s muggy. Rain threatens but not a drop of water has fallen today. According to the other tourists I’ve befriended it’s been like this for a few days. This city is a magnet for solo travellers all passing through from Mexico or en route to Columbia. No one I’ve met has been travelling less than three months. They are a mixed bag. Mostly Americans and some Europeans (Dutch, German and Swiss so far).

This morning I found a great place for Arepa con huevos (corn tortilla with eggs) and good coffee. Located a yoga studio I want to practise at for the next two days and walked aimlessly through the streets in awe at the beauty of the multi-toned stone work and peeling facades.

Just after 1130am I bumped into one of the staff from the hostel wearing a Tarzan t-shirt. A 40-something American originally from Florida. His story is he’s an ex model now turned permanent surfer. He moved here almost 15 years ago. Tarzan’s friends own and run the hostel and he helps them out by running free walking tours, not swinging through the rainforest. The 11km walk took us through the back streets to Ancon Cerro. The highest point in Panama that was originally used as a look out point for the military. The summit has a huge Panamanian flag billowing, that’s the size of a basketball court. They are very patriotic here.

I stepped into line and followed the group of foreigners. We passed through the neighbourhood Santa Ana originally an area that was plagued with turf war problems among gangs. Now says Tarzan, “the kids can walk to school without fear”. The government is trying to clean up the neighbourhood. But it’s still not an area to visit at night. The poverty is overwhelming, as is the rubbish. Plastic, plastic, plastic.

The road up to Ancon Cerro in contrast is set in a wealthy neighbourhood. A large thick piece of tarmac was slapped down right through the middle of pristine rainforest. Here wildlife have to share their habitat with humans. I saw more sloths than in Costa Rica! Tamarin monkeys, toucans, many leaf-cutter ants and fat black and red patterned caterpillars. Our walk back was via the Japanese seafood market.

Ceviche is common food here. But the fish they use can be dubious. I was heartbroken to hear shark meat is used and you have to be careful where you buy your meat to avoid this. Which species, I don’t know. The number of SE Asians working and living here is growing. Every mini market I’ve gone into is run by one. Something I wasn’t expecting. My suspicion is Chinese but I’m not 100 per cent sure.

In an hours time I should be on my mat in downward dog, listening to Spanish instruction as I attempt a vinyasa class. A lovely aeronautical engineer I met from San Fransisco on the walking tour wants to join me. He’s getting on a boat for five days tomorrow to sail to Columbia. It’ll be his last chance to do any kind of stretching.

Tomorrow I think I’ll head to the port to look at the canal properly and maybe hop on the railway. I hear the train is both affordable and a great alternative to a ship transit. It goes past thick rainforest and crosses the isthmus (stretch of narrow of land linking the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean) in just one hour. One more day of playing truant until I fly to Honduras.

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