The original Panamá City was founded in 1519. In 1671 the governor had it set on fire during the attack by Captain Henry Morgan and his pirates. (Not real sure the logic behind that) And the new city Casco Viejo was finished in 1673. Built on a peninsula complete with a defense system of walls surrounding the new city. Some of the original structures before the fire still stand!
Panama has a lot of history that not many north of the Rio Grand could care much less about. But if you would like to learn a bit about Panama in the late 80s to the current take some time and read about the United States invasion of Panama. I had a huge write up about it but I figure I should just keep it light and let you read and make your own opinions.
Now on the brighter side of things… This is not my first time in Panama. I came down here for the first time about 4 years ago to help a guy I worked with in Florida and California build an office for his concrete company near the Canal Zone. A few years later and much has changed! There is much more small business then I remembered. Also a few years ago the streets were lined with armed police officers. Crossing guards in fatigues with AK-47s across their chest. Every corner in Casco Viejo had armed police at the corners. At that time Panama City was still trying to get bumped up in the ranks from a third world country. From what I was told, for that to happen they have to upgrade the chicken busses to proper public transportation and build a subway system to name a few. Since my return those things have happened and much much more! Entire neighborhoods of skyscrapers have been added. When I was here last the supermarket had a 5 piece band playing on a Saturday afternoon and I couldn’t read a single package on the shelves. Since then my Spanish has gotten 150 times better then non existent and everything is now in English. But all in all the city had the same beating heart. Last time I was here I stayed in Marbella. An upscale neighborhood in the business district where I slept in a 2 million dollar condo on the 26th floor lined in marble with an ocean view. We this time around I am staying in the same great neighborhood but in a hostel with the rest of my fellow wanders.
I stayed a few nights at the El Machico hostel. It is the closest hostel to the center of everything and is ran by a really cool guy from Italy. It was once a mansion now turned high end hostel. The rooms are clean and the bathrooms are good. One bathroom has a massive garden tub with mirrors on the walls and a two person stand up shower. Bow-chicka-wow-wow. The real reason to stay here though is the pool!
From El Machico you are in the vicinity of many great restaurants! And you can walk across Avanida Baloba and take a stroll down Cinta Costera or it also has great bicycle lanes of you want to explore on two wheels.
From there you can walk around the shore to Casco Viejo. This was also a much different place just a few years ago.
A lot of the neighborhood had not yet been remodeled when I was there last. It was one of the more poor rundown neighborhoods and directly next to El Chorrillo. This neighborhood was where Norieagas headquarters was in the 80s. El Chorillo is also the main area destroyed and bombed during the US Invasion discussed above. I drove through the part of Casco Viejo that meats up with El Chorrillo in a car with a Panamanian girl and she rolled the windows up. She told me some of the crazies around there will jump in the window of moving cars and start grabbing things or swinging fists! The times have changed. Now it seems to be just a quiet colonial part of the city for tourists to spend their hard earned bucks in the buildings that once were. Slums were remodeled and turned into high end cafes, restaurants and pubs. Sometimes change is a good thing. But if you stard on the point of the peninsula and look north on the shore line you will see a few buildings not far from there. The slums on the ocean side. Still definitely not recommended to step a toe in El Chorilla.
So stroll the 400 year old streets of Casco Viejo. Buy a gormet Popsicle and a Panama hat and have a beer at a waterfront pub and watch the sun set.
And you can’t come to Panama City without taking checking out one of the 7 wonders of the world! The Panama Canal! The 48 mile long canal connects the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The project was originally started by France in 1881 but because we are always finishing their shit, the US took over the project and spent 10 years to complete it. After the discovery of Gold in California in 1849 it created great interest in crossing from Atlantic to Pacific. The canal would eventually shave weeks of travel off of the trip sailing around Cape Horn rounding South America for the pacific coast of the states. Snakes, spiders, yellow fever and malaria killed an average 200 workers per month. I remember when I was in panama last the local people told me the bottom of the Canal is paved in bodies. The French investors went bankrupt in 1889 after spending almost 300 million dollars and 220,000 deaths. The land was all considered Colombia at the time but after the US showed intentions to influence, they helped the Panamanian rebels to separate from Colombian state. In 1903 Panama was recognized as a country. It is considered one of the biggest blunders in US foreign policy. In 1904 the US purchased the 300 million dollars of work done by the French for 40 million dollars. 10 years, 6,000 more lives, three sets of locks, and a man made lake later and one of the biggest engineering feats in history was complete.
One of the 7 modern wonders of the world, The Panama Canal..
If you want to know what to do with yourself at night in Panama City, read my blog post about crashing pools and rooftop bars! Definitely worth the read..
Where to stay-
El Machico Hostel- $16 per night, shared kitchen, AC, a terrific pool and $1 beers.
Getting in and out-
From Tocumen Airport take a taxi to the center for $30. Contact the hostel in advance and they can arrange a cheaper shuttle.
Leaving take a cab to the Terminal de Bus and catch a bus there to anywhere in Panama or direct to Costa Rica. You can also catch a collectivo up the Pan American Highway to El Valle or Nitro City. Cab to the terminal was $12.