Discovering the history and culture of Panama Day 1

Published: June 7th 2019
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Welcome Pilgrims sign at the airportWelcome Pilgrims sign at the airportWelcome Pilgrims sign at the airport

The Pope had recently left Panama City but signs and celebrants were present everywhere.
Monday, Jan 28

We are off to Panama! We enjoyed breakfast at The Cafe by Mise en Place at the TPA airport before hot footing it to MIA where we caught a plane to Panama City. It was a surprisingly chilly 54 degrees when we left Miami so when we landed in Panama we were happy to warm up. The Pope had just been to Panama and as we left the airport there were still large signs pronouncing: “Bienvenidos A Panama Peregrinos” or Welcome to Panama Pilgrims. Thousands of people had come as pilgrims to Panama City to see the pope and although he had left, there were still hundreds of worshipers lingering in churches and parks throughout the city.

We took a cab from the airport to the Hotel Grand Central in Casco Viejo, Spanish for Old Quarter, the historic district of Panama City a UNESCO heritage site. Our tour guide Abdiel Luis was waiting for us at the hotel. He introduced himself as Abdiel Luis and although everyone else called him Luis, we were more comfortable calling him by his first name Abdiel. After finding our room with a nice balcony and unpacking, we set
Hotel Grand CentralHotel Grand CentralHotel Grand Central

This grand hotel was located across from the Plaza de la Independencia and the Basilica Santa Maria la Antigua.
off to explore our surroundings on our own.

The hotel was centrally located in the Plaza de la Independencia or Independence Plaza with a beautiful view of the Basilica Santa Maria la Antigua. The basilica was begun in 1688 and it took 108 years to finish the cathedral. The basilica’s exterior is made of stone and brick while the two towers flanking the basilica were created from wood and are painted white. The towers each hold a working bell. Pope Francis provided the church, considered to be the main cathedral in Panama, with 11 million dollars for restoration. The stained glass windows depicting various saints are resplendent with the sun coming through. I was especially moved to see a statue of Jesus with child-like cherub heads clustered about his feet. I learned that there are graves under the floor that are opened once a year. The pope came to visit here at the end of January, 2019, leaving just before we arrived.

Our group wandered through the narrow streets to the Iglesia de la Merced. This Mercedarian temple is the only church of the Old Quarter that conserves its original wooden roof and columns that date from colonial days. Although tiny, the Iglesia de la Merced’s bright golden altar gleams pulling you into the church. The pipe organ with 1,032 tubes, is housed in an antique 18th century armoire. Take your time to notice the various statues such as Mary of Succour, Saint Mary de Cervellione, the Patron Saint of Sailors. You will see many ships represented inside the church since this had been a fishing village long ago and the fishermen and their families were very devout. I especially liked the Our Lady of Charity with sailors rowing a boat at her feet. Be sure to notice the lovely angels that hang suspended above the golden altar. Santa Luisa, Patron of Houses has numerous colored miniature houses scattered at her feet.

Our walk continued to the harbor where the beaches were exposed from the world’s largest tidal change. From here we had an expansive view of the new Panama City beyond the sea wall and tidal salt flats. I was surprised that I didn’t see any moorings or beached boats as I have seen in other extreme tidal areas in Europe and Canada.

I know that Panamanians eat dinner much later
Santa Luisa, Patron of Houses at the Iglesia de la MercedSanta Luisa, Patron of Houses at the Iglesia de la MercedSanta Luisa, Patron of Houses at the Iglesia de la Merced

I loved all the miniature painted houses spread out at her feet.
than we do but we had been traveling for what seemed like way too many hours without a decent meal so time be damned we decided to eat when we were hungry! We chose Diablicos Abuelo del Diablo was conveniently located down the street from our hotel and within sight of the harbor and beaches. We were hungry and too tired to explore further. The place is touristy cute with indigenous masks hanging on all the walls which made me a bit nervous about the quality of the food but again, tired. We were greeted heartily at the door by the "doorman" and wait staff. Since it was only 5PM I didn’t anticipate other diners but there was indeed another couple who probably arrived on our plane!

After we ordered our drinks (a Mojito and Panama Hat, both good) I walked around photographing the masks and decor. The doorman rushed over, gave me a hug and put a local sunhat hat on my head. I took it off laughing and he said "No, it's for you!". Not wanting to be ungracious I smiled but took it off to eat.

In our first foray into
Diablicos RestaurantDiablicos RestaurantDiablicos Restaurant

This shot was taken from the restaurant's upstairs balcony. The harbor is in the distance.
the Panamanian palate I had the “Stuffed Chicken” a tough chicken breast stuffed with plantain and cheese covered in a raisin béchamel sauce. Dave had the “Fried Fish Wheel” which was prepared with a local Saw Fish, not sure where the “wheel” came from. Both dishes came with the double fried plantain that I can't say I love, I found it to be tough and chewy. The coconut bean rice came with these dishes but I expected coconut rice like I was eating in Belize. I sadly did not taste any coconut in this rice dish. We are hoping the meals will improve.

When we paid our bill and left I gave the hat back to the man at the door and he laughed and said "No I give you". I thanked him, offered to pay him, but he emphatically said no, so we were on our way to explore a little more of the charming old city and its lovely waterfront. I later found out Diablicos has entertainment with Panamanian cultural dances in lovely costumes but unfortunately not on the day/night we were there.

After dinner we decided it was still too early to go to bed and so walked to the Arco Chato also known as the flat arch. Thankfully since we were travel-tired it was only a few blocks from our hotel on Independence Plaza and the nearby waterfront. Originally constructed in the 17th century, the church and convent of Santo Domingo were never rebuilt after a fire that destroyed them in 1756. The only thing that did survive – for centuries – was the Flat Arch (Arco Chato) sitting at the entrance. The ruins are lit at night giving a hauntingly green glow to arch. Day or night, the steeple of the cathedral rises above the remaining structure giving a wonderful contrast between old and “newish”.

On our self-guided walking tour we passed many shops and street vendors selling “Panama Hats”. These shops and street vendors offered many varieties and various qualities of straw hats. We were later told the Ecuadorian people who came to work on the Panama Canal brought these straw hats with them to protect them from the hot sun. The hats are lightweight and breathable made from woven toquilla straw and good ones are pliable enough to fold and stuff in a suitcase. The tight weave was ideal for protection against the tropical sun, plus they are very durable. According to legend a “superfino” Panama hat can hold water, and when rolled up, pass through a wedding ring. The people of Panama liked the hats and saw a market for them, then produced the hats and called it their own.

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