A man, a plan, a canal… we thought that pretty much had Panama City covered. Then we found Casco Viejo. The country’s old capital blew our expectations of Panama City out of the water. The maze of 40 or so charming narrow streets that make up the site of Panama’s first city are something like east London’s street art meets west London’s pristine mansions, only reimagined with latino charm and 30 degree heat. The city as we’d originally pictured it is still there, and spreads out north-east along the coast; at first an urban sprawl of concrete tenement buildings, juxtaposed with the modern skyline of the country’s banks and trading centres beyond.
This divide in wealth was noticeable from the moment we arrived in Panama City’s huge Albrook Terminal. Compared with the bustling station we’d left 8 hours ago in David, let alone with the street corner where we’d flagged down our repurposed American school bus in Boquete, Panama City’s main bus terminal is essentially an add-on to a gigantic, gleaming shopping mall.
Whether or not engineering masterpieces are normally your idea of a good time, you can’t come to Panama City and not see the canal. It’s possible to get there from Casco Viejo for about $2 using a combination of metro and bus, but a $4 Uber took us straight there. Standing on the balcony of the Miraflores Visitors Centre, the canal is impressive, if not particularly pretty, to look at – we’d arrived at opening time (9am) to see the last of the morning’s huge freight liners passing through – but most interesting for us was the museum with exhibits focused on the canal’s place at the centre of every major aspect of Panama’s history; beginning with its independence from Gran Columbia in 1904, supported by the US in exchange for the land out of which the giant waterway would be dug. Missing from the museum, though, was the best fact we learnt about the Panama Canal – in 1958 Robert Legge, one of the few people mad enough to swim the length of the canal, was awarded the status of ‘honorary ship’ as reward.
The rest of our time was spent wandering around the atmospheric streets of Casco Viejo, joining the dots between the imposing architecture of Iglesia de San Jose, the Catedral Metropolitana, Teatro Nacional, and the plazas in between. The waterfront Plaza de Francia gives stunning night time views of the modern skyline in the north, as well as the weird but strikingly lit Cintra Costera – a road and footpath looping out into the Atlantic around the old town. Magnolia Inn, where we stayed, is in a French colonial-style building (from the time when France had a go – and failed – at building the canal in the late 19th century). It also came with a kitchen, so we bought fresh food nearby and saved dinner money to spend at the bar in the remains of a hollowed out building on Plaza Herrera.
We also squeezed in a couple of museums in the city. Two things stood out at the small Museo Historico de Panama. Firstly, that there is very little mention of narco dictator Noriega, his collusion with the US government, and the eventual US invasion by the that toppled his rule while killing hundreds Panamanians. The second was an interesting display on the indigenous populations in Panama. We’d spotted traditional looking dress in Panama much more than in Nicaragua or Costa Rica – the Gunas wearing leg bracelets and bandanas in Panama City and the Gnabe-Bugle in the iconic Panama dresses in Boquete. The price tag was enough to put us off going into the Biomuseo, but the Ghery-designed building made it worth a visit anyway. We arranged a drive-by photo-op with our Uber driver on the way to the airport.