A Visit to Old Panama City

David Lee Roth was singing about a car. Well, the car is actually a metaphor for a woman. But at face value, the lyrics detail a particularly fast, well-equipped convertible.

In Van Halen’s hit song Panama, for some reason, I always thought the bleached blonde, bedraggled frontman was singing about Costa Rica’s canal-enriched neighbor to the south. For thirty years, the crescendoing rhythm guitar track, bubbling bass line and Roth’s shrieks of feigned ecstasy have inaccurately defined a country in my consciousness.

The real Panama is a complex Central American country swelling with hyper-modern skyscrapers and all of the trappings of busy metropolitan life. In the areas around our downtown hotel, we found fantastic food and local craft beer, inexpensive shopping and plenty of unique, unfamiliar sights to keep us occupied. But we also found abusive amounts of litter, noise pollution and the constant presence of Van Halen’s preferred subject: Cars.

If you survive the Panamanian traffic, with its meter-less, confrontational cab drivers piloting seatbelt-less death traps at frantic speeds (“Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue” as Roth might say), a long walk may be in order. And a long walk is exactly what we took on the day we ventured to Casco Viejo, Panama City’s “old city.”

We met the clean new subway a few blocks from our hotel, negotiated the purchasing of cards and fares (with some help from strangers) and rode a few stops to a busy traffic circle. There are no street crossing signs in Panama City. You just have to use your best judgement and go for it whenever you have the opportunity. We sprinted past the roundabout and found ourselves in a commerce hub that, while definitely vintage, was not the old city we were hoping to find.

casco viejo

The quick pops of fireworks (they were fireworks, right?) fired loudly from behind us as we scurried over to a kind-looking soul that pointed us in the right direction with a warning. He was sending us the long way because the more direct route wasn’t safe. This was the first of three kindly spirits this day who all said essentially the same thing in our times of geographical ignorance and need.

The main thoroughfare was pedestrian-only and lined with small supermarkets, sprawling multi-story local department stores and tiny specialty shops. We investigated a few vendors to ogle the incredibly cheap prices on admittedly cheaply-made products, even picking up a few souvenirs for our trouble.

A brief respite in a park was welcome after traversing block after block of shocking consumerist plenty. Our little jungle town in Costa Rica doesn’t have as much commerce in our entire district as this one relatively small section of Panama City. The choices, prices, and insistence of the sales people were all overwhelming.

casco viejo mural

It was in the park that we came to grips with the fact that we had no idea where we were going. We saw some glimpses of what we imagined may be the outer edges of Casco Viejo and headed in that general direction. The houses we passed were once beautiful but now crumbling, with LP-sized chunks of bright yellow and turquoise plaster in stacks across the sidewalk. The scene was reminiscent of our time in Havana, sensing the life and glory of a once-important, mostly happy place that had been reduced to vacant shells. A street gallery for burgeoning graffiti artists, safe haven for squatters and little more.

We gave up and hailed a cab after an especially pointed warning from an old blind man that reached out and grabbed me by the shoulder, speaking of the evils that would befall us if we kept on our current path. An interesting side effect of all these warnings was that I felt incredibly safe in Panama City. Everyone we spoke to seemed to have our best interest in mind. So, while I appreciated and heeded their advice, my lasting impression is that the city is a friendly one.

casco viejo

The cab took us in the opposite direction of our prior march and deposited us on the edge of my pre-planned, self-guided walking tour. We oohed over downtown’s sweeping vistas from the distance of the French Park promenade. Then, we traveled on to see the massive, creative splendor on display in the Catedral Metropolitan, kept a safe distance while skirting around the home of the country’s president, lounged in a few very Savannah-like squares and reverently beheld the massive gold altar in Iglesia San Jose.

san jose church panama

Camille was in good spirits throughout the journey, in stark opposition to our earlier jaunt through the city park. Our quest to turn her into a “traveler” rather than a “tourist” is off to a good start. She asked insightful questions (mostly about Catholicism), requested to do many things on her own (like carry her subway card) and happily found the positives during our numerous missteps (the junk food-heavy menu at lunch was a highlight).

casco viejo

After leaving Casco Viejo, David Lee Roth could classify us as “runnin’ a little bit hot” but in a decidedly different pretext than the song alludes. The subway took us on to the realm of a mind-blowing indoor mall with hundreds of stores carrying every imaginable item to scratch every consumerist itch. Our good moods, tested to the limits by an already full day, crumbled into sore legs and sore feelings and we left after a few random excursions and purchases.

Our curiosity had been quenched. Panama City was every bit the important, global capitol city we presumed. The old city showed the past, the shopping districts the present, and the glistening towers looming over the canal expansion create predictions for the future.

“Jump back, what’s that sound ?,” Van Halen asked. In Panama City, it was the sound of honking horns on the street corners, our quiet whispers inside churches and happy sighs when we returned to our air conditioned hotel room.

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