By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Javier Pinzón
The soul of Panama City is covered in a salty residue. The city clings to memory through its seascapes filled with afternoon light and birds that scream life, people fishing for their sustenance, and ships stacked with containers crossing the channel.
I hope you’re lucky enough to arrive in this Central American country at high tide. If so, with your senses alert as you travel along the Corredor Sur, you’ll experience a second postcard view (the first was that impressive string of skyscrapers you caught a glimpse of from the plane) of this simultaneously green, adolescent, and voracious city, pulsating and at times cavalier, welcoming and contradictory, multi-ethnic, surprising, and nostalgic.
Look to the right from the Corredor Sur and try to spot the stone tower rising out of the mangroves, dwarfed by Panama City’s modern buildings. This is the Old Cathedral Tower, a relic of the old city, still standing centuries after it was built and perhaps the first place you should visit: the Panama Viejo Archaeological Site.
Panama La Vieja, as it is popularly known, is the site where the Spanish conquistadors decided to build Panama City back in 1519. They didn’t choose the best spot ―fresh water was scarce and the sea retreated so far at low tide that materials and food could not be unloaded― but the city’s inhabitants nevertheless survived pirate attacks, economic swings, and political unrest.
A visit to the Archaeological Site is important to your understanding of the city’s history (the Museum of the Plaza Mayor provides a wonderful explanation of the process of Spanish conquest and settlement), but it also gives you a chance to enjoy the view from inside the tower you saw from the Corredor Sur. From 100 feet in the air it’s easy to imagine a colonial city full of churches and convents, where people often died of hunger, government positions went to the highest bidder, and slaves were exported to other New World territories.
Take ten minutes to wander beyond these historical and tourist attractions, to the piece of land behind the Patronato de Panama Viejo parking lots, and you’ll be rewarded by the splendor that only a seascape filled with pelicans and seagulls can offer.
La Librería de Panamá Viejo.
And take a tour through La Librería de Panamá Viejo, a bookstore promising many pleasant surprises, from the works of Svetlana Alexiévich to the odd Heidegger and many classics, along with books on photography and art, the history of Panama and the Spanish conquest, and novels by Latin American greats such as García Márquez, Fuentes, Padura, Vargas Llosa, and Sergio Ramírez. The Librería even has a generous children’s section. Don’t miss it!
Looking for Ataraxia
Panama City’s Cinta Costera is, by far, the city’s finest neighborhood. With minimalist lines and an ocean backdrop, much of the area’s charm comes from its gardens, painstakingly designed and maintained to delight those who enjoy walking among araguaney trees, flowering shrubs, flame trees, seagrapes, ylang-yangs, caobos, kapoktrees, and trumpet vines.
Nestled among the trees are shrubs and small flowering plants such as West Indian jasmine, papyrus, heliconia, oleanders, scheffleras, and ixoras, which attract birds of all sizes, colors, and sounds. This orderly garden aspires to perfection, playing with symmetry at some times and with curves at others, all in the amazing setting provided by the Bay of Panama. In short, it is a place to search for and find the serenity of which Epicurus spoke. It seems to me that, at least for a start, it is enough to sit on any bench, under any of these shadows, and simply listen…to the wind and the tanager’s song. Listen to the sparrowhawk. Listen to the talingo bird as it bickers with the sparrowhawk. Listen to the child playing with his kite. Feel the ants reclaim their invaded territory. Savor the crushed ice and colored syrup known in Panama as a raspa’o.
A Matter of Faith
In the same Cinta Costera area there is an old park that has been recently remodeled. Named in honor of an indigenous Ngäbe cacique who fought the Spanish, Urracá Park’s charm lies in the trees that inhabit it and the nostalgia it produces in those of us who have begun to age. It’s been there for decades, since the time when the Cinta Costera was known as Avenida Balboa, the Amador Washington Library was close at hand, and the tallest condominium in the city was the Atalaya Building.
From time to time, while “wasting time” in the park, you’ll see a Jewish family pass by on their way to the Shevet Ahim Synagogue located nearby. Curiously enough, the scene is repeated by Catholic Christians and Muslims worshippers too, on their way to the Don Bosco church or the Jama Masjid mosque, all within a few blocks of each other.
The visit to Urracá Park and the Cinta Costera comes to a close with lunch on the legendary Boulevard Balboa. I say legendary because this venerable restaurant has witnessed the transformation of Balboa Avenue and, after decades of existence, continues to be a meeting place for politicians, lawyers, judicial system employees, and journalists. Its complimentary bread and delicious soups and sandwiches are heavenly.
A Tour of the Arrabal
Santa Ana is as historic a neighborhood as the touristy Casco Viejo. The two neighborhoods were built at the same time, back in the 17th century, but the Casco Viejo was the protected area inside the walls reserved for the Church, government institutions, and wealthy families, while Santa Ana was (and still is) populated by Afro-descendents, Indians, and mestizos.
Santa Ana is very close to the Cinta Costera and a good pair of legs will take you there on foot. The taxi ride costs no more than three dollars. The neighborhood’s charm lies in its working class atmosphere ―it is the gateway to “La Central,” the capital’s most traditional shopping area― and in its square, complete with gazebo, where great historical figures once harangued crowds with political speeches. In fact, Plaza Santa Ana was a political meeting point for the working classes until it was replaced by Plaza Porras, which was built on land taken over by the city as it grew.
Plaza Santa Ana.
Today, Plaza Santa Ana is a place of rest, invariably populated by retired gentlemen who meet to talk, play dominoes, and watch the neighbors and tourists pass by. Behind the square stands Santa Ana Church, somewhat in need of conservation, over which fly the ever-present pigeons.
Opposite the Plaza is DiabloRosso, a cultural center that houses an art gallery, shops, and several restaurants. Go on in! You’re in for a surprise.
Inside the Walls
Panama City’s Casco Viejo, like the Canal, is not to be missed when visiting the city. With restaurants for every palate and budget and countless souvenir shops, handmade products, and an art gallery, the Casco Viejo’s architecture, squares, and view of the Paseo de las Bóvedas are among the many pleasures to be enjoyed there.
If you love churches, you’ll find five in the Casco Viejo: La Merced, San Felipe Neri, the Metropolitan Cathedral, San Francisco de Asís, and the San José Chapel. All except the Cathedral, which is under restoration, are open to the public. And for those incapable of passing up ice cream, there are at least three ice cream parlors in the Casco Viejo, all filled with delights: Granclement Gourmet Ice Creams & Sorbets, La Michoacana, and Benissimo Gelato & Caffe. Looking for a unique chocolate made from Panamanian cocoa? Visit Tropical Chocolate Café Panama. And if you’re in the market for an elegant guayabera shirt designed especially for the tropics, No Me Olvides is for you.
The Casco Viejo is full of history, countless shops, and plenty of luxury, and after hours walking and getting to know what was Panama’s second city (the first fell at the hands of pirate Henry Morgan) there’s nothing better than a good lunch at the Caffe per Due. The simple menu of pastas, salads, and pizzas and its intimate, peaceful atmosphere are the perfect antidote to a busy morning exploring the colors, sounds, and flavors of Panama City.
- The rainy season in Panama City runs from May to November. Bring summer clothes, but don’t forget your umbrella.
- Tour Calidonia, La Central, and Plaza Santa Ana with only a little cash. Have small bills on hand to pay at the street souvenir stands and the raspa’o vendors.
- Take a taxi to the Casco Viejo; parking is a problem.
- The best hours to enjoy the Cinta Costera are early morning and after 4 p.m. The sun in these lands is for the brave.
- Leave yourself plenty of “down” time. It’s the best way to get to know the city.