Reflections of Panama

I recently returned from an 85-day journey through three small Central American lands, Panama being the third and final country where I spent over five weeks.

I’d like to share a few things that I learned about this small yet super-diverse land.

Panama doesn’t seem to be affected by the current global recession.  Geographically gifted, it benefits remarkably from the epic engineering endeavor of the Panama Canal.

Like everywhere, poverty still abounds.  But, there seems to be much less homelessness compared to what can be see in the US. 

Panama borrows vast amounts of US culture.  While pulling in and out of David by bus on three occasions, the second biggest city reminded me of a slightly dilapidated U.S. strip mall.

 Along with neighboring Costa Ricans, young Panamanians tend to speak English.

Panama uses the U.S. dollar.  This is convenient.

 The roads are well paved.  Unlike most Latin America cities, Panama City boasts a seemingly infinite skyline, which you can hear growing by the day.  Listening to people operating big rigs and power tools isn’t a pleasant experience, but this is Panama today.  The Republic of Panama is said to be growing at a rate of about 6% per year.

Rush hour is a synonym for stagnation in Panama City.  Be ready to meditate. Focus on breathing.  With enough patience you’ll get  to where you’re going eventually.

Panama is the most cosmopolitan land in Central America.  Tons of ex-pats live in Bocas, Boquete, El Valle and Panama City. Heaps of Colombians do various jobs in Panama City.  People from all over Latin America try to move to what they hope will be a more lucrative Panama.

There’s a good-sized Chinese population.  The Chinese tend to run the oxymoronically named Mini Supers.   They’re also talented for running Panamanian-Chinese restaurants.  The ordinary Panamanian doesn’t seem thrilled about the Chinese bringing in their diligent entrepreneurial efforts. 

Afro-Caribbean English speakers live along the Caribbean coast.  Indigenous folks, many of whom don’t speak Spanish, can be seen wearing traditional outfits throughout the country.   Panama City boasts a sizable  Jewish population.

Panama feels safe.  I was told not to walk into any poor barrios in Panama City.  I took heed to that advice by default as I didn’t happen to stumble across anything risqué. If I had, I didn’t know it.

One day I may have been in a wrong neighborhood.  It was during the sultry afternoon.  No one seemed to pay attention to me except for a couple of passers by who told me to be careful, that I’m in an area that’s peligroso.  I walked past two women.  One exclaimed:

Papito Lindo.”

 That was a first.

 Not on one occasion did I feel that my safety was compromised.  Panama seems safer than many parts of the United States.

Once, while purchasing a $.50 Italian-style sub sandwich off the street, just outside of Casco Viejo, in Santa Ana, I felt a Styrofoam box slide down the back of my lower legs.  I looked up to see a disgruntled taxi driver walking to his cab in the opposite direction of me, saying:

 “USA f*ck, sh*t.”

 The two vendors who were making cheap, scrumptious sandwiches nestled beside a curb, said,


 They both felt sorry the man who angrily uttered blasphemy.  There were others around, including his fellow taxi drivers.  Everyone seemed to ignore him.  I didn’t feel threatened.  The empty styrofoam box felt like a feather as he was walking away.

I probably shouldn’t have been wearing shorts.  Panamanian men don’t wear shorts unless on the beach.  This is true in most Latin American cities.  I thought: Perhaps this guy lost a friend or family member when the Americans dropped bombs on Panama City back in ’89.  Who knows. 

 The only other minor altercation I encountered in Panama was  on a pedestrian bridge in Panama City.  I was asking for directions to Via Veneto. That’s where my favorite vegetarian restaurant lies.   A jogger passed by.  Upon hearing my Gringo Spanish, the runt-like man said:

 “Green Go Home.”

Unable to control a bit of laughter when I retorted:

 “Me voy en casa mañana.”

 This took him by surprise as he jogged away.  I thought: A possible perception of his is that I may be a little bit more loco than him.  How could he have known if I was bluffing this mild insanity or not? Of course I was. 

 These were the only two mildly strange situations I’d experienced with Panamanians.  Most people were friendly.  Many genuinely liked to practice their English, especially in the two biggest cities.

The young people seemed to find gringos to be a natural element of their surroundings.  Many of them appear almost proud to be learning and speaking English.  I always felt comfortable around everyone, even in the two above, harmless episodes.

 I walked through the Santa Ana neighborhood on a handful of occasions, even at night with all of my belongings.  I was en route to the bus hub of Cinco de Mayo, where I’d get a $.25 old and fixed-up US school bus ride to the bus terminal of Albrook.

 The working-class people that I came across were friendly.  I bought makeshift pieces of dinner from different street vendors, threw my two packs down, stood over them, ate the fare, and shot the breeze with the humble hawkers.

I had my only Panamanian hamburger ($1.00), grilled beef on a stick ($.50), a hot dog ($.50), and a Tamale($1.00).   I love the act of ordering, buying, eating and talking with street vendors.  My love of the street food experience makes the act of engaging in pure vegetarianism more challenging.

 On another occasion in Santa Ana I had a piece of warm, just-baked banana bread from a woman who had pulled it from her oven minutes before.  She was walking through the neighborhood selling deliciously warm, soft bricks of freshness for $.30 each.  A grand smile lit up her face when I bit into the warm, fresh excitement, smiled and said:

Que sabroso!”

 Panama City is relaxed even though the police are ubiquitous.  They don’t seem to have any interest in interacting with tourists, unless they’re tourist police.  I had an encounter with a pair of them in Casco Viejo.  For perceived safety reasons, they recommended that I drift along one route over another.  Apparently Casco Viejo used to be dangerous; however, today, with soaring real estate prices and gentrification, you wouldn’t know it.

Taxis are cheap.  You shouldn’t pay more than $3 for any taxi ride in the city of Panama or David.  You just need to negotiate the price beforehand, especially if you’re a foreigner.  Know how to say numbers in Spanish.  Some taxi drivers speak English.  Many don’t.

Panama has a lot of nice tourist sites.  It’s a paradise for hikers. nature enthusiasts and surfers.

Despite being a ridiculously blatant, set-up tourist exposition, the Panama Canal is something to feast your eyes upon.  You can take a short $.35 bus ride from the Albrook terminal.  Tickets are $5 or $8 to enter.  The $8 tickets will enable you to get a view from higher up, give you the option of watching a short film on the canal, and eat in the expensive restaurant overlooking the canal.

 Panama Viejo allows you to see circa 500 year-old ruins from the old capital.  It’s an easy $.25 bus ride from Casco Viejo or Albrook.  It costs $6 to enter but there’s also a free area before you arrive at the paid entry point.

 Much of Panama City looks like a developed US metropolis.  The contemporary neighborhoods make you realize that there are two economies.  When noticing this I pondered: Isn’t every city on earth this way?”

In the traditional Santa Ana neighborhood and throughout the country, ice cream cones can be had for as low as $.35.  Pastries like the famous Mamallena (bread pudding square) can be had for as little as $.15.  That’s what I paid at La Panaderia in El Valle.  You’ll pay two to three times that everywhere else, still keeping this savory treat dirt-cheap.  Qualitative and cheap pastries can be found in Panaderias and Dulcerias throughout the land.   After a few days of indulging on cones and other unhealthy sweets, I become aware that these cravings were induced by this delicious junk food that appeared in my face constantly.  I got over the novelty and cut way down on my extra-fat consumption.

Panama seems to be getting over touristy in places, a lot like how Costa Rica has become.  In places like Boquete and Bocas, I’ve heard accounts from locals who told me that gringos have told them to learn English.  I’d say:

Shouldn’t it be be the other way around?”

Like in Costa Rica, many Gringos seem to treat parts of Panama as if they’re in an extended state or territory of the US where everyone must speak some version of the Queen’s tongue.

Panama still possesses charm with gentle, outgoing people who seem unfazed by the sight of foreigners.  They are often apathetic about interacting with you.   Most indigenous people, some who can’t speak Spanish, won’t speak to you.  While on a bus and handing a small package of cookies to a mother’s daughter, the mother snagged them, took two and handed me the two that were left.    The little one glanced up at me stoically on a couple of occasions.   Neither the mother nor her toddler uttered a sound.  I thought: Are tourists ruining the traditional lifestyle that these indigenous people have sustained for centuries?   Are  we traveling aliens who are contributing to inflation which hits the poor native people hard?

 Now is the time to visit Panama, before it becomes more touristy and less charming.  Panama has it all, lush and sleepy mountain towns, a pacific and Caribbean coast, with archipelagos, tropical islands, and peninsulas.  Panama City offers urban options.

There’s a wonderful long walk along the waterfront in Panama City, amazing Ceviche and great cheap vegetarian fare.

The old and modern contrast.

 Panama is tourist friendly.

If you don’t mind bare bones eating and lodging, and nothing else, then you can super-thriftily get by on as little as $20 a day. At the other extreme, you can easily drop a lot more. It’s up to you and your budget.

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Panama’s a short flight from North or South America and it’s very easy to get around within the country.



One response to this post.

  1. When can I buy you lunch or dinner? Can’t wait to hear the first hand account.

    When are you gonna have a donate button up on your site? If and when, do count on a healthy chunk moving from my account to yours. I really want to make sure that you’re able to continue to earth drift and write travel articles.


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