A visit to Panama City seemed like an appropriate ending to our South American journey. Granted, it’s not actually in South America. But it’s close enough for government work (or French scientists). It’s a pleasant coastal city on a big gulf with refreshing tropical breezes. It’s an easy, direct flight from Cartagena, Colombia. And we figured, why not enjoy a few warm days in Florida before heading home?
Uh, wait a second. It seems we’ve encountered some technical difficulties here at the Blog del Mundo. Panama City, Florida, was not part of our itinerary. And as far as I know, there are no direct flights there from Cartagena.
Hang on a moment while I reroute a couple of faulty wires here. I just need to get the flippin thingamajig plugged back into the gosh darn whatchamacallit.
Ah, there we go. OK, let’s start again.
A visit to Panamá City seemed like an appropriate ending to our South American journey. Granted, it’s not actually in South America. But it’s close enough for government work (or French scientists). It’s a pleasant coastal city on a big gulf with refreshing tropical breezes. It’s an easy, direct flight from Cartagena. And we figured, why not enjoy a few extra warm days before heading home?
Here’s a question for you: if Panamá isn’t in South America, does that mean it’s in North America? I mean, I know it’s in Central America. But where is Central America exactly? Is it part of a continent? If so, why does it get its own special name? If you look at a map (preferably one acquired outside of Medellín) Central America doesn’t seem to have any clear boundaries from a geographic point of view. Only political borders define it. Heck, geographically speaking, the whole damn land mass runs uninterrupted from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Or at least it used to, before they dug that canal. I suppose you could say the Panamá Canal is now the most logical place for a continental divide. But that would split Panamá in half.
I’ll say this. In terms of cuisine, local culture such as clothing and crafts, and the style of Spanish spoken, Panamá feels a lot closer to Colombia than it does to, say, Mexico. Well, it is closer to Colombia. Much closer. So I vote we put it in South America. All in favor, raise your hands. Let’s see…one…two…a hundred and seventeen…nine hundred and sixty-four thousand…ok, I’m not sure if we have a majority, but it’s close enough for government work.
A visit to the capital, Panamá City, reveals more of the country’s South American vibe. As in Ecuador and Colombia, there’s plenty of Spanish colonial architecture in the city’s Old Town (Casco Viejo), along with examples of art deco and other early 20th Century styles. Lots of restoration has been done in the last decade or so, transforming the Old Town from a dangerous slum to a tourist destination. There are still some dodgy streets and alleys beyond the friendly confines of the main plazas, but also a lot more buildings being restored.
For a glimpse further back in history, you can stroll the 16th Century ruins of Old Panamá (Panamá Viejo) east of the city. Brick walls, archways, and remnants of convents, churches, public squares and homes of prominent citizens stand as a stark anachronism against the backdrop of Panamá’s modern high-rise addiction. Where does all the money come from to build all those beautiful buildings? Some of it might very well be the profits of drug trafficking. But as I understand it, Panamá’s boom is mostly the result of an even more criminal enterprise: international banking.
Of course we couldn’t visit Panamá and not see the Canal. The Miraflores Locks are just a short drive north of the city. It’s impressive to watch huge ships pass through the channels with only a foot or two to spare on either side. A small museum makes only brief mention of the thousands of workers from dozens of countries who lost their lives during the dredging and construction work, mostly due to malaria and yellow fever. But both the museum and a short 3D film go on and on about the glory of Panamá. Sure, Panamá has autonomy over the Canal’s operations now, as well it probably should. But come on, Panamá – you didn’t build it alone. Even nowadays I’m sure you employ plenty of foreign expertise to help keep everything humming.
Panamanian food is very similar to the cuisines of other Central and nearby South American countries, with a few flavors that may have infiltrated from Mexico. Ceviches and freshly grilled seafood are ubiquitous. Patacones are delicious pan-fried patties made from mashed plantains. One of my all-time favorite dishes is common here too. Ropa vieja (which literally means, “old clothes”) is seasoned, shredded beef served with any number of accompaniments.
We enjoyed our few days in Panamá City, but I don’t think we’d rush back. Like Ecuador, the national currency is the US dollar, so it’s not an especially cheap destination. The proliferation of high-rises, casinos and American chain restaurants, hotels and shops, combined with heat and humidity that is sometimes oppressive remind us of Hong Kong, or maybe Las Vegas. Like those places, Panamá City seems to lack a distinct personality. It definitely can’t match Bogotá’s self-assured urban beat. And though it actually is on the Pacific coast, it pales in comparison to Medellín’s lush landscapes.
As for Panama City, Florida, I believe its economy is also based on the US dollar. It certainly can be plenty hot and humid there too. But if I’m not mistaken English is the native tongue, though sometimes you have to ask the locals to speak slowly and repeat themselves.