I started out on this trip with no expectations, only really wanting to escape to a warm place and away from the huge political changes happening in the United States. I decided to begin in Panama because that’s where a good friend of mine was from (and also visiting for his Christmas vacation). I wanted to work my way up through Central America and figured it would be nice to begin in a place where there was at least one friendly person.
I ended up really liking Panama City. Granted I mostly stayed in the touristy area, the old city area called Casco Viejo. My excursions into the main city reminded me a lot of my home city of Bombay, except with way less pollution. The entire population of Panama is around 3.5 million, a tiny fraction of the 10+ million people in Bombay!
Panama City is quite far from the airport, so you have to take a $35 taxi. There is a bus but it is a little complicated to find it and take it, especially for a non-Spanish speaker. Some hotels offer a cheaper shuttle back to the airport. Taking Uber can lower the cost a bit too.
My taxi driver to the city was very interesting. He was a Venezuelan computer scientist and college professor who had escaped from there with his family. The things he told me about Venezuela and how bad things are getting there were really saddening. I don’t think most of us can fathom what it’s like to live in a fairly stable prosperous country most of our lives and then abruptly have to leave and become a refugee in another country later in life.
I spent a day wandering around Casco Viejo. This was my first time seeing beautiful Colonial architecture with its bright colors, flat roofs and heavy dark wood doors. You can climb to some elevation at the easternmost tip of the area and get a great view of the Pacific Ocean and the modern city skyline across the bay. If you wander a little by the water, you can find some spots where you have the modern city on your left and the contrasting old city to your right. It’s quite a delightful contrast. And if you let yourself reflect on it, quite a bit sobering looking at the shiny skyscrapers towering tall amidst quite a bit of poverty.
A lot of the new looking buildings in Casco Viejo are buildings that have been restored with the colonial facade intact. There still exist old buildings with their original inhabitants so you get to observe the contrast between their lives and that of the shiny touristy places of businesses too. Even more sobering is to look at the old buildings and see the bullet holes, back from the US invasion of Panama in 1989.