First impressions of Panama City, Panama, a city of contrast
Two and a half days is not enough time to understand the nature and character of a city, but one does form some first impressions. My first impressions of Panama, outside of the heat and humidity, are of contrast. “City of contrast” is a time-worn travel cliche travel writers are encouraged to avoid, but contrast was the word constantly coming to mind during my short visit. Contrast between old and new, wealthy and poor, development and decay, grandeur and squalor.
Panama City is an old city, founded by the Spanish in 1519. Its history is evident in Casco Viejo, an area declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. It has many buildings dating from the seventeenth century and is a lovely area to stroll through. The contrasts of the city are evident here. While standing amid the colonial buildings, skyscrapers are visible across the bay. Tall white structures which look too narrow to stay upright. The skyline seems more like Miami than Central America.
Contrasts are found within the Casco Viejo area itself. Beautifully restored buildings, run-down homes, and buildings under renovation sit side by side. Casco Viejo is home to the Presidential Palace, which is the government office and residence of the President. Yet, just a few blocks away outside Casco Viejo is an area of dilapidated, neglected buildings and visible poverty.
The metropolitan area of Panama City has a population of nearly 1.5 million people. It is multi-cultural and sees many tourists in a year. There are upscale shopping centres and entertainment areas where tourists and locals walk safely at night. And there are areas of crime and gang violence. A Panamanian resident who lives in a more western part of Panama warned me about the city before I came, saying to be careful because it was dangerous.
Our only brush with this side of the city occurred the afternoon we went looking for a post office. I intended to do something rather old-fashioned – mail a couple of postcards. As we walked, the area became seedier and seedier. A woman stopped us at one point and warned us about going further, telling us to hold onto our possessions. She said the area ahead was a “red zone”, an area of crime and violence. We continued on, walking quickly and with purpose, as I held my small cross-body Pacsafe purse tightly against me. We passed a small outdoor market, flanked on each end with police in flak jackets. We made it to and from the post office without incident, but I wouldn’t readily walk through that area again and I certainly would avoid it at night. My husband said he hasn’t seen me walk that fast in years. (When we first asked for stamps for Canada, the clerk shook her head no. I couldn’t believe we’d be unable to post something to Canada so we persisted. She gave me three large stamps for each postcard. It was a challenge to find room for them on the card. Three months later the postcards have still not reached their destination.)
Later that evening, we felt safe and comfortable walking in Bella Vista area. And we found people generally friendly and ready to help, in spite of our almost non-existent Spanish. We had barely started trying to figure out the Spanish options for purchasing a Metro card at the automated machine when three women stopped to help us. They did not appear to be travelling together but joined forces to help these tourists.
A Metro card is used to electronically enter and exit the turnstiles at the subway system. The card cost $2. We then added additional money onto the card to pay for fares. We only needed one card between us. After one of us went through the turnstile, we tapped the card again to allow the other to go through. The Panama City subway system is new, clean, inexpensive, and safe, with security guards on the cars. It opened in 2014 and is being expanded into more than one line.
The Metro card can also be used on the modern, air-conditioned Metro buses. But in this city of contrasts, although they are being phased out, we still saw a number of the old Red Devil (Diablo Rojo) buses. These brightly decorated buses, retired U.S. school buses, are independently owned and operated, with no set schedule. They earned their name by the way the drivers honk their horns and fishtail past other traffic.
Traffic, whether on landscaped, wide boulevards or on old, hilly, narrow streets, is chaotic, with brazen merging and consistent honking. Taxis were plentiful and inexpensive. They are not metered, but instead operate on a preset fare structure based on zone. Ask the fare before getting in. Available taxis honked at us as they passed by. If we held out an arm as they did that, they stopped and picked us up.
The people we saw in the streets of Panama City could have been in any major city, with western style dress and cell phones in hand. Even in the heat, jeans and long pants were common. Although traditional costume is typically reserved for festivals and special occasions, we spotted glimpses of the traditional among the everyday western dress – older women wearing the type of waistline purse worn with the pollera and women with the many-coloured beaded leg wrappers of the indigenous Kuna traditional costume.
There are many areas of Panama City I did not experience. And there are many sites I did not get a chance to visit, such as the ruins of Panamá Viejo, the protected tropical forest of Parque Natural Metropolitana, and the many museums. I did make it to Miraflores Locks to see part of the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel which has played a major role in the history and making of Panama City. For now, until future visits alter my impressions, Panama City remains a city of contrast for me.
Have you been to Panama City? What were your impressions?
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