“The Panama hat is not even from Panama. It’s from Ecuador. During an inspection of the construction of the Canal, President Theodore Roosevelt was hastily given the closest hat on hand, since it was deemed ungentlemanly to be without one. People around the world marveled at this new, stylish and dandy sun protection device and the name took off. While in Panama, it will be offered to you many times, in every size and color, to the point where you’d think Ecuador is only making them for the tourists in Panama.” I copied this text from my friend Stefan’s blog who is doing a rally across all Latin America. He left from New York and hopes to reach Ushuaia sometimes in the spring I guess. I planned that I should meet him in Panama but I was too slow leaving, kept at bay by projects and many others and him, too swift to cross the “gap”. He is now in Columbia so we missed each other by one country.
Panama has the fastest growing economy in Central America and where else can you see this better than in Panama City. The stretch of sleek skyscrapers on the waterfront are in sheer contrast with the poverty that is still surrounding it. The view of this futurist line of buildings is impressive seen from across the bay in the Casco Antiguo, the old center town. But in spite of the dirt and poverty there are obvious things that are way different here than in any other country in the region. Panama City is one of the very few capital cities Central America that is full of tourists deemed to safe to visit. Besides is the only country in the region where you can safely drink its water a matter of national pride that was iterated by several people I encountered. There’s road and building repair and renovation everywhere you go. The country created a very attractive climate for business with a 0% tax and just a couple of hours process of incorporation for a new business that comes also with a guaranteed residency with proof of your established business. You can figure out right away that something is different by talking with the tour operators that most of them are Americans with US numbers on their websites and a very efficient way to operate.
Casco Antiguo, the old part of the town sits on a peninsula that was originally protected by fortifications. Parts of them still exists and they, and the entire area, were protected mainly from neglect by its relatively recent designation of UNESCO protected monument. When I walked its streets it reminded me of Montevideo’s old area, an impressive collection of buildings and beautiful villas, all abandoned and falling under neglect where policemen were running to redirect occasional visitors like me to the good, and most important safe, part of the town. The effort of resurrecting the beautiful old buildings in Casco Antiguo is impressive but it is everywhere. You have a feeling that the chance of renovating happen recently and everybody delved into it like it was offered for free. Among the already beautifully renovated buildings that accommodate fancy restaurants and bars or high end hotels are carcasses sustained only by metal or wood structures through which you can see the sky or colonial roofless churches peppering the ambience. But the noise of construction comes from every other house where cement bags are stashed in front for renovation. In the middle of the Casco in a beautiful palace are the offices of the President of the Republic. It is relatively surrounded by check points and soldiers but tourist access is relatively relaxed and allowed. Being a major project for making the city attractive, the Casco is heavily guarded by police on bikes that patrol continuously, this presence making it the best place to be at night. The best of the Casco comes at night when the terraces open and tourists and locals share the plazas for dinner and drinks. The heat and humidity of the day gave away to a very pleasant atmosphere and the vibe is felt in the air, all people congregating a pleasant night stroll.
I spent most of my day in the Casco with a hiatus in the afternoon when I changed my hotel and I had to spend some time to do my planning work for the next days with the recent information acquired on the ground. There are lots of tours offered by many agencies, most of them around $100/person, and I had to see what and when is available. I also tried to find an accommodation close to Las Tablas for the carnival, a daunting task because they were all sold out months in advance. But a real miracle happened and a hotel that I tried before opened up a room and I grabbed it swiftly, a sheer luck that I cannot thank for enough. After I called lots of travel agents and checked their websites knowing all by name I was able to settle for a number of things from the ones that were available planning to leave the city for Las Tablas on Monday morning.