At Arenal in Costa Rica at Leaves & Lizards, a torrential downpour sent me to sleep around 10pm and woke me again at 5am. Low cloud and heavy mist obscure the view of the volcano (I managed to glimpse its outline yesterday briefly) but the hummingbirds are still squabbling and flitting through the flowers as we lie in bed and watch them through the huge room height window in front of us. There can’t be many better views in the world to awake to and the rhythmical sound of the rain is soothing even at this early hour. It’s our wedding anniversary and a travel day today, we get picked up at 12.30pm. Again I have no idea where to as Dave’s quest to keep this entire trip a daily surprise is surprisingly holding tight, despite us being asked frequently where we are heading to next. Easy to explain to English speakers, (Dave’s fan club growing as each woman we tell sighs wistfully) but slightly more complicated when talking with a local driver…our very limited Spanish and a dictionary has given us ‘cumpleanos sorpresa’…birthday surprise. This usually results in lots of back patting for Dave; one day there will be murals painted across Costa Rica in his honour. So we head 4 hours drive in the car with Enrique’s (the horse trainer) son, Steven to San Jose airport. One stop off en route at a roadside restaurant for huge plates of chicken and black bean quesadillas and rice, we asked Steven to join us and had a pretty good chat; more down to his grasp of English than our appalling attempts at Spanish. We drove by huge swathes of sugar cane grasses; their large silvery feathered heads swaying in the breeze backlit by the sun, looking like captured frost formations. At the airport we went direct to the bag drop area and check-in desk; I was expecting a 1 hour inland flight to the coast of Costa Rica. Pretty nearly screamed out loud when Dave handed me my boarding pass printed with Panama City, a long wished for destination. Completely bowled over, I followed Dave on to the small Avianca aircraft and less than 2 hours later we were standing on the tarmac of Panama City. The heat, the humidity, the tropical smells; I gulped it in. This is what travelling is all about, spiking the senses and exciting your soul. Flying in over the city at night, my head full of new discovery. A cab ride later and we checked in to the Panama City branch of The Ace; The American Trade Hotel, a beautiful colonial style restoration in an old bank https://www.acehotel.com/panama The room was huge with windows opening on to a small balcony overlooking a plaza which was absolutely jumping with the noise and energy of Saturday night revelers and year end partying graduates. At midnight we jumped into the small outdoor rooftop pool just steps away from our third floor room and floated to the sounds of a vibrant city whilst looking up at the stars. Got to sleep around 1am despite a 5am start and a long travel day…but I was pumped with the adrenaline of surprise. Woke around 8am, my birthday and thanks to Dave, celebrating it in a place I’ve always wanted to visit. We could still hear people outside, but rather than nighttime revelers these were gathering in the plaza to go to church or go on walking tours or simply taking in the sun resting on a bench under the statue among the trees. We had a long leisurely breakfast in the stylish dining room of the hotel.
After a full breakfast we headed out to explore the local streets of Casco Viejo, which according to the guide book used to be a popular gang neighbourhood. It’s now an area seeing rapid gentrification; crumbling haciendas with collapsed roofs and wild ferns clinging to ancient rusting balconies nestling alongside coffee bars, restaurants, galleries and independent boutiques. Restored Spanish colonial mansions breathing new life as upmarket apartments and hotels. The shops mainly cater to tourists with cheap Panama hats sold alongside those selling the real deal; the tighter the weave, the better the quality, the higher the price.
It’s a romantic area…neglected and condemned buildings alongside elegant restorations. Thankfully there are no American or European chains in Casco Viejo, but it definitely caters primarily to tourists with higher priced traditional crafts in smart air conditioned galleries jostling for space with overcrowded tourist souvenir shops. There’s a distinct charm with old buildings being taken over by street artists and revolutionary political art or by DJs hosting late night parties.
We walked along the sea wall where you get an incredible view looking from Casco Viejo across the water to the sparkling tower glass skyscrapers of the new city skyline; reminiscent of Miami and where the daily commerce of Panama City takes place. Locals sit under makeshift awnings sheltering from the sun, selling handcrafted embroidered squares called Molas, jewellery and masks. Walking beyond the street vendors and down some stone steps we looked across the harbour to the colourful patchwork architectural jumble of Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo sitting on a peninsular jutting out in to the Pacific Ocean on the Amador Causeway.At the foot of the steps we see the impressive semicircle of busts in the Plaza Francia, a square designed by Leonardo de Villanueva. A tall black obelisk crowned with a French coque stands at the centre of the monument which is dedicated to the French involvement with the building of the Panama Canal; and to the thousands of people who came to Panama from across the world and lost their lives to disease or accident whilst working on it.Dave booked an Uber cab from town, as recommended by someone at the hotel. Around $4.60 plus a tip to take us 12 kilometres to the Miraflores Vistors Centre to gain access to the Panama Canal at $15 each. A fraction of the costs touted by guide companies and the hotel price of $60 each. The 15USD entrance fee includes access to a small seated theatre showing a short film about the historical construction of the canal and including footage of the 2016 official opening of the new section; 60% wider than the original canal. It’s a brief documentary; sacrificing information for feel good nationalist propaganda…but it’s worth seeing for a basic outline of the history and the hundreds of balloons and flares they released for the 2016 opening. The entrance fee also includes a small 4 floor museum, 2 floors dedicated to the history of the canal featuring photographs, old film footage and models, the 3rd floor a simulation of standing on the control deck whilst navigating a ship through a time lapse representation of the canal which is excellent as well as slightly disorientating. The 4th floor is a random small exhibit of local insects and a fish tank. There’s a great snack stand selling coffee, teas etc where you can buy a drink and head up to the seated observation deck to watch gigantic ships being towed through the lock sequence and guided out to sea. Frigatebirds dive in to the canal for fish, so big they look like prehistoric pterodactyls. Pelicans perch on the lock gates and Grackles swoop the observation deck for sandwich crumbs. A little boy around 4 years old sits in front of us, playing with a bunch of kids. He’s dressed in a white wife-beater vest, low-slung belted pinstripe trousers and cap; looking like a Cholo gangster. He flips the plastic seats up and down with a broody expression on his face until Dave starts to flip the seat back to him, resulting in a shy smile and a look of reassurance to his young mother. The canal is impressive but from the viewing point it’s difficult to appreciate the vastness of the lock gates. It would be fantastic to ride on a huge container ship passing through and be able to look back down the length of it.
The highlight for us was a large papercut piece titled ‘The Parade 1969’ by an American artist Thomas Witte (shown below). The detail in the cut paper is remarkable. I would love to own it but at $14,500 USD sadly out of my league. The lady overseeing the gallery was fantastic, taking us behind the scenes to show us more works hanging in sliding storage for sale. We visited another gallery in the area but it wasn’t to our taste; too whimsical and flamboyant. Booking Uber again, back across the causeway to the famous Mercado de Mariscos (fish market) where, arriving at 2pm, the traders were in the process of packing up but we went upstairs to the highly rated fish restaurant. It’s a basic space directly above the fish market with views across construction on the new causeway and the sound of pneumatic drilling. Plastic tables and chairs and vinyl table cloths…it’s definitely an experience. A plate of garlic jumbo shrimp was served in a thick sauce, tasty but a little too thick and not enough taste of garlic but the fresh raw fish ceviche was one of the best we’ve ever tasted, delicious. The menu is huge and you can order a bottle of white wine to chill at your table. Service was fast at 2pm but can apparently be slow at peak times of the day.
A cab back to the centre of Casco Viejo. The driver was good fun, we nicknamed him Mr Romance based on the stories he told us of the various nationalities of all the ladies he’d loved; the current conquest being Spanish and living in Spain where he was booked to visit in a few days. We bought ice creams in town and wandered the streets to Simon Bolivar Square and in to some of the churches.
I fell in love with Casco Viejo; we didn’t have time to explore much more of Panama City as we were only here for 3 nights. From what we saw in cabs driving around, this is definitely the area to stay for a few days. It’s so full of energy and alive to new possibilities. One can only hope that the vibrancy of it doesn’t get completely marginalised and pushed out by the investment pouring in.