´How is Panama?´ I asked.
´Too western.´ They said. ´And too expensive. And generally too everything-a-good-backpacker-should-avoid. Tell you what, Colombia is where it is at.´
I thanked them for their advice, booked my flights and set off for Panama, leaving the charms of South America.
Panama? Isn’t that a Canal or something?
Yep. That’s what I thought too. But here is the thing; it is also a thin strip of land bridging South America to the North. Their currency is US dollar, and although the official language is Spanish, a lot of people speak English there.
When I landed in Panama City, it seemed like they had been right after all. The city’s skyline, with its canopy of lit skyscrapers, looked as if it was a cardboard cut-out illuminated by an enormous light behind it. Where the hell was I? Hong Kong?
The taxi from the airport to downtown cost me $30, more than one would pay for a bus ride across Bolivia plus a take-away llama.
Then there was the humidity and the heat. Imagine a city constructed in a gigantic sauna. Now put that sauna in the tropics. That’s Panama for you.
Panama City doesn’t appeals to everyone. It doesn’t have the star quality of a Rio or a Cusco. But if you give it a chance, just like almost any other place on earth, it will reveal its gems in time. The following are my picks of the bunch.
- Parque Natural Metropolitano de Panama (Metropolitan Natural Park)
Want to have a late breakfast, hop into a taxi and hit the rainforest, spot a sloth and be back in your hostel in time for an afternoon beer? Well, this 232-hectares protected area smack-bang in the middle of of Panama City is your answer. Created in 1985 to provide a biological corridor along the eastern shore of Panama Canal, the MNP can give you a real idea of what a tropical forest looks like.Take a guided tour of the park ($6) or wander in by yourself at your own peril. Although the park is classified as a tropical dry forest, it is home to 45 species of mammals and at least 254 species of birds, reptiles and amphibians. If you are as lucky as we were and have a good set of working eyes, count on spotting fresh-water turtles, spotted-pacas, squirrels and a variety of birds and insects. Or even a sloth.
- Trump Tower(Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower)
O.K. We all have our say when it comes to Donald Trump. But seriously, the sunset views from the 66th floor bar are… well just look at the photos! The entry is free and if you would like to leave a substantial dent in Trump’s bank account, you do not have to purchase a drink to enter the bar. Otherwise, a Balboa beer, a gin and tonic or a martini will set you back $6, $10 or $12 respectively.
- Ancon Hill/Lookout Point)
My personal favourite activity in Panama City, this former site of Canal administration lays a short 30-45 minutes stroll from Casco Viejo. Raising to a height of 200 meters (654 feet) the hill provides a perfect vantage point for taking that perfect panorama of the city or the canal. The entire hill is considered a wildlife reserve. During my visit, I spotted a three-toed sloth, three Keel-billed toucans, two pacas, snail-kites and vultures; more than the total number of animals I spotted during a 4-days stay in the Peruvian Amazon.
- The fish market in Casco Viejo
Located within walking distance of the famous back-packer hostel, Luna’s Castle, the fish market is where one can get much more than just fish. Squids, crabs, lobsters, chop it all off and make a cup of Ceviche –this ceviche tastes nothing like the one you find in Peru–. A few beers later and you are sitting there on a plastic chair, merry and content, watching the world pass you by.
- Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo, or the old quarter, is where the old and the new Panama still reside, entwined in history. Crumbling colonial buildings with aged but still beautiful facades lean against their younger, more vibrant siblings, awaiting their fate, while the renovated edifices turned into glamorous restaurants and theatres speak of the unavoidable, forceful arrival of a new era.
At the end, Panama was everything they had told me it would be.
And yet, when the time came for me to leave it, I was glad I hadn’t listened to them. I was glad I had come, and sorry to be leaving.
But don’t take my word for it. Who knows, I might be working for their tourism department.
Go see it, if your heart tells you to.
Have you been to Panama? If you have any suggestions about Panama, please leave it in the comment section!