So first adventure of 2023 is a trip to Panama and Costa Rica. I left Seattle on an overnight flight to Miami with a connection to Panama City on American Airlines and …. I actually managed to make it out of the Miami airport and arrive about a half hour early into Panama City. (A far cry from last February when I spent endless hours in the Miami airport trying to make it home. I guess the American Airlines gods owed me one.
And one interesting tidbit. As we flew into Panama City, you could see hundreds of freighters waiting the approximately 24 hours to obtain permission to pass threw the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get to my camera, but trust me, there I couldn’t believe how many ships were sitting off the coast.
Once we landed and I exited customs, I met my driver picked me up in Panama City in glorious sunshine and 80 degree temperatures and drove me to Casco Viejo, the old town in Panama City , which is undergoing a bit of a renaissance with old buildings being converted into lovely boutique hotels, restaurants and shops. The hotel I selected was right on the edge of the rebuild area and if you ventured too far up the adjacent street, you would end up in the “slums” (their word not mine).
Anyway, after checking in to La Concordia Boutique Hotel, I wandered the Santa Ana neighborhood, which has yet to be rebuilt and is on the edge of the tourist area, past Santa Ana Square, fruit stands and people selling beans, rice and other staples from sidewalk stands. During the walk, I ran into a group of guys chanting, banging drums and dancing and couldn’t decide if it was a protest or a party. As I watched, I noticed there was a growing presence of police so decided it may be the former and beat it out of there. I ended up back at the rooftop bar in my hotel for a late lunch/early dinner and drinks and called it a day. It has been a long flight and I had a busy Saturday.
So first up Saturday was a two hour walking tour of Casco Viejo. Now the tour did not start well. I met my guide, Jesse, at Plaza Herrera at 9:00 a.m. just like the instructions provided. However, I was informed that the tour would now leave at 10:00. WTF?? I was not particularly happy and ended up sitting on a park bench, avoiding pigeon poop for the full hour. I was finally joined by a couple from Toronto (Guelph actually), two girls who showed up late and were pretty standoffish, and two people here on a convention from Seoul, South Korea who lived in Houston, TX.
Anyway, Jesse started the tour with an intro to the old town ruins adjacent to the square explaining that the town was actually not the real old town, but was constructed after pirates continued to attack the original old town about 8 km away resulting in multiple fires and destruction. The “new” old town was built in 1671, but only a portions of the original stone structures remain.
The first set of stone ruins were near the square and were part of the original defensive wall called Tiger’s Hand Bulwark that separated the wealthy residents of the inner town from the riff raff forced to live outside the walls and commute to their jobs inside the walls. There was even a curfew that required these folks to be out of the town inside the walls. YIKES!
We then moved up the street past old buildings in need of refurbishment (and what appeared to be recently closed bars and restaurants no doubt a casualty of COVID) to the first of multiple churches we would visit. The first was our Iglesia de la Merced (Church of the Mercy), which had an interesting icon that was dedicated to Saint Hedwig who worked with the sick and the poor. Panamanian believers pray to her for a home and often leave some cardboard houses at the shrine. In addition, the church was moved from the original old town, stone by stone to the new site. Portions of the church date to 1680, although most of the beams, and stone work have now been replaced.
We left church #1 and walked down Avenida Central (which is also the main drag in Casco Viejo) made a couple turns and ended up at church #2, Iglesia de San Jose, which was the first “new” church built in the new old town, but the original structure burned in 1737 and then rebuilt. The church is most famous for its gold alter, which is made of mahogany and covered in gold leaf. However, I was most struck by the 11 wooden apostles that used to adorn the church and were made out of bitter cedar wood. The apostles had been outside in the elements for hundreds of years and were in remarkably good condition – a testament to the kind of wood used.
We left the church and walked down the street past the old stone ruins of Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, a Jesuit church and convent. A school was later added in 1741 and then became a university. The buildings were destroyed by forest and earthquakes in 1781 and 1882 and now sit next to a brand new hotel. I thought the ruins were beautiful and wanted to stop, but our guide kind of blew them off and kept walking. Weird.
Next up was the Plaza de la Independencia/ Plaza de la Catedral & The Cathedral Metropolitana, which were nice, but I preferred the old stone ruins. I guess the most interesting factoid about the area was the plaza used to be a bullring. Also, I correctly identified the adornments on the church towers as mother of pearl. (Hey you don’t travel as much as I do without picking up a thing or two.)
Anyway, we walked through the Plaza and down the street past Casa Gongora, the best preserved house in Casco Viejo dating to 1779, through Parque Bolivar and a statute of Simon Bolivar (revered in Central and South America for standing up to the Spanish and pursuing independence) to yet another church: the Church of Francis Assisi. Now one thing all of these churches had in common was that they held tiny replica villages of Bethlehem. I never got a full explanation for the reasoning, but this church was no exception. In addition, there was an art show going on inside. Weird.
After what turned out to be the final rebuilt church, we moved on to the best ruins of the morning, Arco Chato, or Flat Arch, which was aptly named because a flat arch separated the choir from the rest of the church. The original church was destroyed in 1756, but the arch and surrounding stone ruins survived in tact. The arch spans a space of 50 feet, 35 feet high at the crown and 25 feet at the spring and is completely flat. The arch remained in tact for centuries and was the instrumental in proving Panama was outside the primary earthquake area and was a deciding factor in the decision whether to build a sea level or lock type canal. Ironically, the arch collapsed in 2003 and was subsequently rebuilt.
Our last stop of the morning was a walk through Plaza de Francis to the Obelisk that is an ode to the French who partners with the U.S. in the construction of the Panama Canal. The Obelisk is topped by a rooster (a French symbol) and includes 12 marble slabs detailing the history of the Panama Canal.
So with the morning walking tour done, I joined the couple from Canada and the couple from Houston for a drink to cool off after walking in the morning heat and humidity before the couple from Canada and I met up with Jesse for a trip to the original Casco Viejo.
The site was about 8 km away and once at that site, we paid an entry fee and hopped on a a little trolly car that took us through the ruins to the museum. On the way, we passed the ruins of a school, a convent and stone walls. When we arrived at the museum, the most impressive ruins at the site, the Panama cathedral and old bell tower.
We ended up walking through the museum, which featured a number of relics found at the site, including jewelry, burial urns and pots, bathroom pots, skeletons, sewing tools, to name a few. We then left the museum and walked around the site where we saw an iguana and two parrots. Unfortunately, just as I was about to take the picture of the parrots, they flew off.
Anyway, we took in the bell tower and then wandered down the road to the ruins of the Conception nuns convent (quite impressive), which was constructed beginning in 1597. The ruins were in really good shape and was possible to visualize how the site must have looked centuries ago. The last site we took in was the Church of San Francisco. There was not much to see here but a few stone walls, but interesting nevertheless.
We then jumped back on the trolly and headed for the exit. I was back at my hotel around 3:00 and had about an hour and a half before I joined a “Tasting Tour” through Casco Viejo. I made it to the meeting point and was joined by Suzanne from Germany, Starsha and Chad from Germany, Jim and Ricardo from Panama and Cynthia and Kyle from Fall City.
Gonzo, our guide, was a ball of energy and turned out to be the perfect guide for the tour. Our first stop of the night was Café Sisu where we were going to taste geisha coffee and chocolate. Now geisha coffee is grown in the grown in Boquete and Chiriquí regions of Panama and is the most expensive coffe in the world. Now I am not a coffee drinker, but decided to give it a try since I was told the coffee tasted more like tea and contained “delicate notes of jasmine, bergamot, peach, lemongrass, and red fruits”. Yea no. It tasted just like a regular cup of coffee. Now I will say that when I took a bite of the chocolate (which was more like fudge) and took a sip of the coffee, it tasted better, but still a big fat NO.
After the coffee stop, we moved on to a tasting more to my liking: a microbrewery named La Rana Dorada (The Golden Frog), which is indigenous to Panama and very, very endangered. Anyway, the tasting to proved to be an absolute blast. We tried seven (7) different microbrews with a variety of ambers and ales. I like the second and last tastings the best. Gonzo said that the third beer tasted like University and he was 100% right. In Canada they would call it “piss water”. And bonus at this brewery: they had the NFL playoff game (Kansas City and Jacksonville) on the tube.
Our next stop was a bit of a hike down the hill and about a quarter mile to the Seafood market and the numerous ceviche stalls. Once we arrived, we walked to a stall in the middle of the facility sat down and order three different types of ceviche: sea bass, seafood and shrimp. And having tasted what is billed as the best ceviche in the home of ceviche, Peru, I can say with 100% certainty this was without a doubt the best, most flavourful ceviche I have ever tasted. I was superb. Perfection. The only down side is, it was so good, most of us ate the ceviche before our drinks even arrived.
Anyway, after we were full of ceviche, we walked back up the hill (past the park where there was Lunar New Year party going on) and to a roof top bar where we sampled 7 year old “Abuelo” rum on the rocks. The rum was really spectacular, a tad strong for my likening. After the ice melted a bit it made the tasting a bit more mild and more to my liking.
After the last tasting, I ended up going for dinner at a Peruvian restaurant with Suzanne where she and I solved the world’s problems and compared travel notes. She is a massive traveller like me so it was fun to talks about various trips and shared experiences.
I was back at the hotel by 11:00. Put in my earplugs to drown out the noise of the neighborhood and the bar upstairs. Tomorrow I am off on a 8 day small boat cruise through the Panama Canal, up the Panama coast (Pacific side) through various islands and then on to Costa Rica and its islands before landing and going inland for 10 days.
One thought on “Panama City, Panama”
A great article and photos