Although I have a decent amount of travel experience, convincing the parents to go to Panama alone was not an easy sell. I picked the Panama for a number of reasons: it is the safest and most cosmopolitan country in Latin America, it is considerably less touristy than Costa Rica, the airfare was cheaper than any surrounding country, and the currency is the US dollar. After drafting up a sample itinerary (which proves my knowledge of the country) and showing them the airfare (about $500 round trip), they gave me the green light.
I normally choose to travel solo for a number of reasons. Firstly, Wash U students are incredibly unreliable and generally unwilling to go out of their comfort zones. The second reason is that I can craft a trip that caters exactly to my preferences and I can be more mobile. I hate having to go home early or change my travel plans because someone isn’t as adventurous as me or is feeling lazy. My travel style is to go all out during the day, go to bed on the early side, and never get drunk (although I will certainly have a couple drinks in a night). This allows me to get up early, experience the day to its fullest, and avoid any dangerous situations that occur from going out late at night. The third reason I usually travel solo is that it forces you to interact with your surrounding. The only way to truly experience a culture is to meet locals. If you have a travel companion, you can always talk to them as a fallback, but when you are alone, you have no choice but to meet other people and hear their stories. This is the most rewarding part of travel.
The flight from Miami to Panama took about 2 1/2 hours. Despite what most people believe, Panama is actually due south of Miami. After landing, I spend about 45 minutes getting through customs before feeling the heat and humidity for the first time. It was 97 degrees incredibly humid. My hostel was in Casco Viejo, $25 and 30 minutes away. The area surrounding the airport looks like a third world country with lots of poorly constructed huts. However, all of a sudden the tall white buildings of downtown Panama City came into view. The city looks just like Miami or Tel Aviv- countless glass skyscrapers. I passed the Hard Rock Casino, the Trump Tower and the “tornado building”.
Casco Viejo, Spanish for Old Town, was on a peninsula about 2km past downtown. My hostel, Luna’s Castle Hostel, is located at the edge of Casco Viejo and is the coolest hostel. It has a nice hippie backpacker vibe, the staff is really nice, and the decorations are cool. There’s also a popular bar and a movie theater in the basement. After checking into my room, I walked along the coast about 1km to the local fish market nearby to get a cup of fresh ceviche for $2.
The Casco Viejo district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Panama City is actually the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean, founded in 1519. Unfortunately, the buildings in Casco Viejo were only built in 1676. After getting some food and settling into my hostel, I decided to take a walk around Old Panama. Since I arrived on a Sunday, everything was closed. However, it gave me the opportunity to explore the architecture and find my bearings. The streets in Casco are narrow, only wide enough for a single car. The three story Spanish style buildings are a quarter occupied, half dilapidated, and a quarter under renovation. In five years, this place is going to be beautiful, but for now it feels like a ruined ghost town.
After realizing that Casco Viejo is best saved for another day when everything is open, I decided to walk in the other direction towards the government center near Plaza de Cinco de Mayo about 1km away. The walk involved going along the Avenida Central, a major shopping pedestrian mall. While Casco Viejo was mostly empty, Avenida Central was happening. Street vendors sold fresh fruits including pineapples, mangoes, papaya, and banana while blasted Tropical music (a subgenre of Latin) from their carts. The people watching here was fantastic. While many people wore Western-style clothing, many wore their indigenous clothing: Kuna, Guaymi, and Embera. Being 6’4” and from a temperate latitude made me the tallest and whitest person in all of Panama. Even if I wanted to blend in, I had no shot since everyone on the street stared at me as I walked by. The biggest shock while walking on Avenida Central is the sheer numbers of people and liveliness of the street. The crowds rivaled that of Barcelona and Disneyland. I eventually made it to Plaza de Cinco de Mayo, but was unimpressed by the National Assembly building. It looked a lot like an old office building in West Los Angeles, not the seat of the legislative branch. On the way back to the hostel, I stopped at a supermercado on Avenida Central and bought a gallon of orange juice and a soccer jersey from Nicaragua on sale for just $2.
After returning to the hostel to drop off my purchased, I immediately hopped in cab to Amador causeway. Originally owned by the US until around 2000, the causeway is a 1km long narrow strip of land that connects the mainland to 3 small islands in the Pacific. The causeways is a popular day trip for Panamanians, as it is one of the only places in Panama City that has access to clean ocean water. I saw lots of families biking together. After checking out the scene, I ended up walking back to the mainland.
The Biomuseo, a semi-constructed museum designed by Frank Gehry (architect of Disney Hall, and the Guggenheim Bilbao) stands where the causeway meets the mainland. While walking next to the museum, I heard a loud “gringo” call, looked over and saw about 15 Panamanian children who wanted to take a picture with me. After taking the picture, a few of the pre-teen girls asked to friend me on Facebook and Whatsapp me. I respectfully declined.
A bit past the museum was a yacht club for ex-pats. At the open-air bar, there was a rocking band playing Gimme Three Steps and Oye Como Va. While I enjoyed the atmosphere, the place felt too similar to the United States and nobody seemed interested in talking to me, so I left.
After failing to find an empty taxi, I walked back to hostel through a so-called sketchy neighborhood. Everyone I walked by stared at me, confused as to why I would ever venture here. Even though it was considered extremely dangerous, I thoroughly enjoyed walking through the neighborhood because there were no tourists and gave a glimpse into the real Panama. Everyone blasted music and people were playing soccer. I refrained from taking out my camera much to avoid any thievery. That said, all the people I passed were courteous and there cops on every corner. While I was not completely sure of the directions back to the hotel, I simply followed the direction that all the full cabs were going in–where else would they all be going besides Casco Viejo? Additionally, I acted like I knew where I was going by walking fast, looking forward and not responding to the people calling “Gringo” at me. Confidence is actually a fantastic deterrent of petty crimes.
After eventually made it back without any hassles, I decided to go to an Italian restaurant next to the hostel. There, I met a beautiful Israeli woman who was also alone. She was surprised that I was Jewish and informed me that there are kosher markets in Panama City and that Jews actually control most of the commerce in Panama. Who knew?! After dinner, we decided to go to a rooftop bar in Casco together.
The next day, I awoke at sunrise and decided to take another walk around Casco Viejo.
One of the most important buildings in Casco is the Palacio de las Garzas aka the Panamanian White House, which is located just two blocks from my hostel. When walking down one of the narrow streets near the residence, all of a sudden 2 motorcycles followed by 2 white Toyota Rav4s drove by. Because the streets were so narrow, they passed within 3 feet of me. I decided to wave to the people in the cars, but unfortunately did not get a wave back. I figured this was the less than impressive presidential motorcade, so I followed the cars to the Palacio. While I was not allowed to walk within a block of the house, I was able to see the president step out of one of the Rav4s and be greeted by four horsemen and a military band playing the national anthem. He then walked into the house. Staring confused at the security guard, he responded “cumpleaños”. I kind of crashed the birthday party of el president. After the event ended, I decided to chat with the military band.
One of my favorite parts of Luna’s Castle Hostel was the free pancakes every morning. At breakfast, I was able to meet fellow backpackers staying at the hostel. Basically everyone in the hostel, except for me, is a backpacker from Europe who has been traveling the “gringo trail” for 2-6 months. The “gringo trail” is nickname for the popular backpacking route through Central America. Most people start in either Mexico City or Belieze and end up in Panama. The trail ends in Panama because there are no roads through the Darien Gap into Colombia. So by the time a backpacker finally reaches Panama, they are tan, friendly, easygoing, and full of amazing and sometimes terrifying stories. These backpackers traveled as long as they could before running out of money. A day of rest didn’t mean much to them and after traveling for months, many people wanted to spend some lazy days at the end of the “gringo trail” before catching a flight back to Europe. If they woke up too late, oh well there’s always tomorrow. One German girl has been in the hostel for a week and has yet to do anything in Panama City! One day, I would love to be a backpacker like them. Panama is the end of the route for most people coming south from Belize or Mexico. However, unlike most backpackers, I was pressed for time since Spring Break is only a week. Therefore, I had an extra incentive to make each day count. If I went out late one night and got drunk, I would risk losing a day, which didn’t mean much to someone without a timetable, but meant almost 15% of the trip to me.
Panama City is home to one of 7 Baha’i temples in the world. Panama holds special significance in the Baha’i religion, as it is a gateway between continents, oceans, and cultures. The location for the temple is about 35 minutes outside the city by cab (I told him to return in 90 minutes). Just like all Baha’i sacred places, it is located at the top of a hill and is a 9-sided building. From the hill, you can view all of Panama City. While in pictures the Panamanian Baha’i temple is less than impressive, it seems to fit the landscape perfectly when viewed in person, which is admittedly a vague description, but I cannot think of anything better to say. After walking around the temple grounds, I had a discussion with the caretaker of the grounds, Abdiel. Abdiel offered me coffee and we proceeded to have an hour-long discussion about spirituality and the Baha’i faith’s place in world religions. Eventually, the cab driver returned at the scheduled time and returned me to the hostel just in time for lunch.
About a 5 minute walk from the hostel is Café Coca Cola, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Turns out that Café Coca Cola is the oldest café in Panama (opening in 1875) and that Fidel Castro and Che Guevera planned their takeover of Cuba while eating lunch here. Everything about the place was no-nonsense from the food (mainly rice, beans and chicken but there were other options at very reasonable prices to the plainly dressed waitresses who refused to acknowledge the English menu.
After lunch, I returned to the hostel and decided to go to the Panama Canal. A super tan British man named Adam who was staying in the hostel tagged along so we could split the expensive $6 cab. The Panama Canal cuts across the country starting in Panama City and ending 44 miles later in Colon, the second largest city in Panama. Along the way, there are 3 locks. The closest ones to Panama City are the Miraflores Locks, which are the largest of the 3. We got there around 3pm just in time to see a huge ocean liner pass through the lock. The enormous boat was just narrow enough to fit into the channel. As this was certainly the largest boat I have ever seen, I could only wonder how much stuff it was carrying and how much all the cargo was worth since it costs a few hundred thousand dollars to pass through the canal. Having seen the lock and dam system on the Mississippi River, I can truly say that I am in awe of the size and scale of the operation.
I then went to dinner at Manolo Caracol, which would probably get a Michelin star or 2 if they rated Latin America. It was an elegant 9 course pre-fixe dinner for just $22… or so I thought. Turns out the guidebook in the hostel was terribly outdated and the dinner actually cost $50 including wine, which was actually reasonable for the quality of the food received. It was so good and so nicely presented that I took a picture of each of the 9 courses of food that night. Walking back, I passed by the President’s house and caught a glimpse of his birthday fiesta. People were salsa dancing on the roof. This would definitely not happen in the US.
One cool part of my hostel, Luna’s Castle, was that the a bar in the basement. It was called the Relic Bar and was decorated like an old Spanish ruined fortress. Beers were 50 cents and the crowd was quite diverse, as both locals and backpackers come to the bar. I had a beer with a bearded man no older than 30. Turns out he was a ship captain looking for a crew to sail to Colombia (straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean). He told me about these islands called San Blas, which are in the Caribbean about a 30-minute boat ride from the Panamanian mainland. He said that these islands are the best place to visit in Panama, so we decided to book a trip leaving in 2 days.
To read Part 2: Click here