Panama City


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Published: April 22nd 2012
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A example of the some the architecture around Casco Viejo.
A combination of a cheap flight and a lifelong desire to see the Panama Canal resulted in us heading down to Panama City for our spring break.

As Shauna wanted to relax at the beginning of the trip, we booked the first three days in at Coconut Lodge, which was just outside of the city. I was worried about the location, as it wasn't close to really anything. At least this way, I would have to relax… In all my years of travelling, I have never had quite the experience as I did here. While it bills itself as a B&B, it was really a B&B and resort combined. Right from the pickup at the airport to the free room upgrade and complimentary drink everything exceeded our expectations. We were the only guests there for our stay, so we had the whole place to ourselves. It reminded me of staying at a friend's place in Bermuda with its tropical climate and pool. For the first day we did absolutely nothing other than relax and read. We were suppose to do this for all three days, but one of the owners talked Shauna into a couple of side trips. First, we headed to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, which was a similar experience to what we had in Ghana. There was an observation platform above the tree line, so we were able to see many birds and even a sloth! The toucans were of particular interest as are very colourful, noisy, and tended to travel in groups of two or more. Before heading over to Casco Viejo for our last four days, we stopped into see the Milaflores Locks, which is part of the Panama Canal. It is amazing what they did here 100 years ago. While the engineering is one thing, what they had to get through to complete the project with malaria, yellow fever, and the jungle makes the feat all that much more impressive. It was also interesting learning more about the US/Panama relationship, which seems to have been a love/hate one over all of these years.

Well rested, our next stop was Casco Viejo. While I have been to a number of old Spanish/Portuguese colonial towns (i.e. Antigua, Leon, Granada, and Colonia), Casco Viejo was different. So much of the town is in horrible condition. Money is being spent now to revitalize the area, but there
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Panamiam buses are not short on character...
are many abandoned buildings where squatters have taken over or the building is ready to fall over. At the same time, funky new restaurants and hotels seem to be popping up everywhere. To make matters worse, all of the streets are being torn up right now to accommodate new infrastructure. The town should look very different in five to ten years.

We had a few nice meals. The most memorable was at Manolo Caracol, which offered us a 11 course meal for $35. Outside of the salad, all the other dishes were amazing. We also enjoyed the cerviche around town. I particularly liked the corvina (sea bass), which was nice and thick and fluffy.

While we had a bit of reprieve from the heat and humidity at Coconut Lodge because of its location and pool, we didn't have that luxury at Los Cuatro Tulipanes. While we did have air-conditioning, it wasn't enough to cool more than our bedroom. I wonder sometimes how we cycle in the tropics during the heat of the day.

Panama City has a beautiful skyline for a city of one million people. They have had a dramatic building boom of condos and office
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Life on Avenida Central (the old business district)
towers in the past ten years. Some of this seems to have been fuelled with the US housing boom of the 2000's, but there are serious signs that the property market is cracking here as supply has gotten ahead of demand.

As I did in London, I stopped in at a HSBC to get a better feel for what was happening here at HSBC and in the local economy. I met with the head of the Private Bank. We met out for lunch and it was certainly worthwhile experience. Panama is trying to position itself as the offshore jurisdiction between Switzerland and Singapore.

One of the highlights of the trip was a walk through Santa Ana -- a poorer working class neighbourhood bordering Casco Viejo. The main business street (Avenida Central) looked like it was frozen in time from the 1950's. Panama City's business centre has along ago moved to other parts of town, but this place has a certain charm with its cheap clothing and jewellery stores to its funky signage. We even stopped into the Coca Cola Cafe, which has been in existence since 1875. This is apparently the only restaurant/cafe in the world where Coca Cola allows it to use its hame. As Santa Ana seemed relatively safe, we spent the last morning and headed up to Ancon Hill. The walk up the hill was really nice with a great view of Panama City and lots of wildlife to watch out for. Ancon Hill use to be part of the Canal Zone and was a rallying point for Panamanian sovereignty. Actually, the largest flag (as big as a basketball court) in Panama flies on top of the hill.



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