Panama City: Something old, something new

Cinco minutos! – says our local driver to us for the third times answering the ultimate question about when we leave, and he sit back again to his chair. In this moment we hopelessly realize that in this part of the world time goes by in a different way than we knew it before.

Time was not on our side

This and other kind of time issues accompanied our whole Panamanian journey. When we took the first sight at Panama City the linearity of time was really questioned: the colonial past and the modern future like good neighbors stand together in the forward-thinking present, and for our European eyes it was hard to decide what we really saw. An oversea metropolis? A big city from the Far East? A Latin-American favella? And these are just a few from the thousand faces of Panama City.
Past and Present

Past and Present

Through the chain of Chinese vendors, barbers on the streets and the ruined concrete sport courts which reminded us to the City of God movie, hot wind blew the penetrating smell of the fish market, and above all the most bizarre was to see the soaring skyscrapers over the crowded Old Town. In spite of these contradictions Panama City earned to be one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world.

Barbery on the street

We spent two days in Panama City when we arrived to the Latin-American continent. Our plane landed in the middle of the night, and after 22 hours of traveling, first we went to the hostel where we had booked rooms from home. Luckily. (Three weeks later when we finished our Panamanian journey it was really hard to find empty places in the hostels of Panama City, so always think a few days forward!) Panamericana Hostel was really nice, especially the roof terrace with panoramic view to the Pacific Ocean. We began the next day here, and after a poor breakfast (bananas with peanut butter) and a Balboa beer, we started to discover the city.

The New Panama City

Panama city’s rising started in the 19th century when the trade revivened by the freshly constructed Panama Railway, but even twenty years ago it was just a small port city compared to its current state. The dynamic development is due to the thousands of big companies who have replaced their center here to optimizing taxes, and in the last two decades more than 200 skyscrapers, new roads (one above the ocean!) and parks have grown out of nowhere. Today Panama City acts like a magnet for real estate tycoons and wealthy North Americans looking for tropical sunshine and a safe place to their yachts. They often hang on the promenade runs through the coast of the Pacific Ocean called Costanera, which is the most beautiful after the sun goes down. But every day at 10 p.m. all of the skyscrapers fall into darkness. They say the skyscrapers are empty – the offshore companies register themselves here, but actually no one living or working in these buildings, and the lights just burn until 10 because that is the rule.


The Old Panama City

The city was founded in 1519 by the Spanish Pedro Arias de Ávila. In the 17th century Henry Morgan (better known as Captain Morgan) and his pirates robbed and destroyed the city which was rebuilt a little farther a few years later. The most ancient part of the city, Panamá La Vieja’s ruined buildings and the cathedral preserved the memory of the pirates, and standing there unchanged through the centuries. The reconstruction of the old town (called Casco Viejo) started four years ago. We visited the city in 2013, and we have seen that on every corner of the district there has been something new was being built. The many new bars, boutique hotels, small parks make Casco Viejo really friendly, and many say that the town is like Havana because despite the developments it has preserved its old patina.

Park in Casco Viejo


Reconstruction in Casco Viejo

We were eager to find some authentic flavors or souvenirs, but we looked for them in the wrong place. Rolling through the Avenida Central, after the many-many Chinese stores we realized that even the Panama hats are made-in-china-s here. The thing is that the 4% of Panama’s total population is Chinese, and this fact means that Panama has the biggest Chinese population in Latin-America. The firsts of the Chino-Panameño-s came to this country in the middle of the 19th century to work at the Panama Railways. They replaced the hard physical work with trade very soon, and have played major role in the economy. Now you can find them and their cheap stuffs around the Avenida Central.


Avenida Central

The Panama Canal

Of course, those who go to Panama City, have to see the Panama Canal! The Canal can be visited at Miraflores Dock, but it is not free, you have to pay 15 dollars for it, and honestly it is not really worth it, because what you see is a harbor with ships. We enjoyed it better when we looked at from our hostel’s roof terrace.

Color your journey by public transport

If you see a multicolored bus, you can suspect you are in Panama City. If you see an other one, it strengthens the suspicions. But when you see the third one, you are in Panama City for sure, which is famous about its colorful buses called Diablo rojo-s. The Diablo rojo-s were american school buses once and after their retire came to Panama where every one of them have get some unique and exciting new look by their new driver. We do not travel by them, but it is relatively cheap, one journey is about 25 cents, and you have to pay when you get on the bus, and sometimes when you get off.

Diablo rojo

We preferred to go by taxi, which was also cheap, our ride was a few dollars, but pay attention if you do not speak any Spanish, the price can be double, so always agree on the price before start the journey.

The most important things we learned during our two days stay in Panama City

  • 5 minutes can be 5 minutes or 20 or half hour or two hours or a lifetime.
  • 5 minutes (which are really 5 minutes) without sunscreens can be very dangerous.
  • Tap water is drinkable.
  • A can of Balboa beer costs just 50 cents – from now and forever, because it is forbidden to raise beer prices.
  • Panama City is not cheap.
  • Public safety is much more better than it seems to be.
  • There are not really local (I mean Panamanian) specialties, if you want to eat good, go find a Peruvian restaurant.
  • Not everybody drinks Captain Morgan rum.

Orsolya Tomon

I am a 33 years old copywriter from Hungary. During my job I can nearly never share my own experiences, so I find it really amazing to talk about them in a forum like that. I always loved traveling, but my real journey begun when I was living in Portugal a half year. I have found many friends there from all over the world, and later when I visited them I was lucky to knew their home towns through their eyes. As a student of History I always looked for stories behind the places I visited, and these local friends show me them. And much more.