a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘panama’

not teddy roosevelt’s panama

Casco Viejo has a long history.  It was first built in 1673 when pirates destroyed the first settlement, Panama Viejo.  It was declared a World Heritage site in 1997.  Panama City was founded in 1519 and taken down by the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.  The new city was on a peninsula surrounded by the sea and defensive walls.  Panama Viejo is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas.  It is a mix of French, Spanish and American architecture and ancient city planning.

Like so many cities, wealthy people starting moving to the suburbs in the mid 20th century and it became a neglected neighborhood eventually rife with rival gangs.  It’s not a place for a naïve tourist but it’s easy to navigate and hotels will supply you with a map that tells you where NOT to wander.  I spent almost a week there and was perfectly safe.

casco upgrade

If you are an idealist like me, it is gratifying to be supporting positive social change.  The revitalization of Casco Viejo is a model in development.  From what I’ve read, you can thank a corporate lawyer.  HUH?  His name is K.C. Hardin and apparently he moved to Panama to surf and accidentally fell into real estate development.  The company is called Conservatorio and is redeveloping Casco Viejo using a business model that is a model in many other ways.

The American Trade Building is four stories high and was built in 1917 to profit from the new Panama Canal.  By the time that Conservatorio got involved, it had been abandoned and was headquarters for a gang.  It’s hard to imagine that now, which is to the credit of the sensitive restoration and Conservatorio’s inclusive attitude toward development.  Gang members have been turned into entrepreneurs!

The American Trade Hotel is definitely a great pick if you can afford the tariff.  I went for lower prices but did

it lured me in…

indulge in a night of jazz at Danilo’s Jazz Club and highly recommend it.  The American Trade Hotel has created a revolution (of the peaceful kind) in Casco Viejo.  Across the street is Casa Casco, which also has four stories.  It is definitely the new Panama and one of my favourite hangouts during the trip.  Each level provides a different experience and cuisine.  The rooftop is lovely but the food selection is a bit bizarre.  It advertises itself as tapas but the selection is more sandwiches and pizza.  One level does Japanese food so decided to go for sashimi.  Really wanted tuna AND salmon but bizarrely that was not an option so went for tuna.  I had to eat it in the dark and there was no rice but the tuna was outstanding, far better than my recent food in Japan…

I went again and tried the third floor, which was Mediterranean.  Had an Instagram-worthy creative modern lamb dish.

Tantalo Hotel was also a great place to hang out.  There is a bar and restaurant on the main level in addition to the rooftop.  My food on the rooftop just OK but

head to the roof

the downstairs restaurant packed so likely worth trying.  There is definitely a lively scene on the rooftop and it is an excellent place to hang out.

The hotel staff were very welcoming.  I got a free drink in the bar upon arrival and they booked my birthday dinner in a sister restaurant called Caliope, where you get a discount as a hotel guest, as well as getting me VIP access to Teatro Amador.  Not everyone speaks English so communication can be a bit challenging but it was a wonderful day.  Got to spend my birthday evening in the VIP section at the Tantalo Rooftop and even got a piece of cheesecake with a sparkler in it just after midnight, when my birthday actually began.  Jose was amazing and took me through the staff entrance so that I could put it in the fridge in my room to enjoy as breakfast on my birthday 🙂

You will need to beware of the touts preying on tourists.  They are Latin so very charming and convincing.  The places they steered me weren’t bad but you can likely do better.  Probably my best meal was at Aki Sake Bar and Japanese Kitchen.  A great cocktail and outstanding sushi rolls for an incredibly modest price.  Casa Sucre is very good but not cheap.  Do go for a drink at sunset on Plaza Bolivar – there are several options.  The atmosphere is the main component.  Do have at least one Balboa beer but, if beer is your thing, check out La Rana Dorado, especially during happy hour (the Hop on Hop Off bus happened to drop me off at just the right moment 🙂

If one of your guilty pleasures in life is all versions of ice cream, you will need some steely self-discipline to avoid spending your entire time in Panama at Granclement.  It was just as well I didn’t find it until the end of my visit. I love ice cream but this is the first time I went twice in the same day!  I did walk a lot between visits…

Casco Viejo is a capitalist Havana.  It’s a fascinating place full of history and promise.

the importance of being open-minded…

There are some old stories I may still commit to paper but it’s time to get into 2017 on the blog 😉

I have gone through various phases in my feelings about Panama.  When I grew up, it was not considered a tourist destination.  Then I had a friend visit and it got on my radar.  Not long after, I transited through Panama City airport on my way to South America and the experience was horrible so I held it against Panama and it went to the bottom of the list.  Then I read an enthusiastic article about Casco Viejo and discovered my birthday coincided with a great time to visit and airfare would be very reasonable.

Now that I’ve been, I would recommend being magnanimous about the airport and airlines who fly there because it is worth checking out but I had one of the ugliest flights of my life getting there.  The theory was great.  I would overnight to Toronto arriving early morning and then depart in a couple of hours for Panama City, sleep on the plane and arrive midafternoon to start sightseeing.  It all began well enough.  I got to Toronto and indulged in a great breakfast in the terminal.  I had about an hour of sleep on the plane so would survive a little longer.

colonial splendour

It didn’t take long for everything to go horrendously wrong.  Our boarding time came but no one was boarding.  There was something wrong with our plane and we would have to find another one.  They suggested it would take a few hours.  Not great but not terrible yet.  The day wore on and information was sketchy.  I discovered the terminal was filled with few options for either food or entertainment so a place you only want to transit through.  Instead, I got to spend about 15 hours trapped there trying to stay awake so I wouldn’t miss a flight for which I didn’t even have a departure time anymore.  I was a first world refugee.

Finally a flight came onto the board and we all lined up again, actually getting on a plane this time.  The hotel in Panama City was excellent and changed my transfer from 2pm to 4am so I arrived exhausted and disorientated but didn’t have to find a taxi.  I decided to stay in Casco Viejo, which is essentially the old town, but Panama City is an old Colonial city so it was relocated centuries ago so there is a Panama Viejo as well.

Panama has a long, bizarre and colourful history.  Not only has it tangled with Spain, Colombia and the USA, pirates, conquistadors and dictators, it even has a unique place in geological history.  We’ll talk more about all of that but, for the casual tourist, what will matter is modern Panamanian history.  Thanks to Jimmy Carter, Panama got control of the canal on December 31, 1999 and in 2015 the expansion to accommodate modern supertankers was completed. This – along with a better electoral process – has brought a lot of change to the economy.

Like most developing countries, the spoils are not shared as equally as they might be, and it’s good to do some research and not wander randomly, but Casco Viejo is beguiling and I had a wonderful visit.  You will also be supporting social change and economic revitalization (more on that in future).

a place to call home

I had a leisurely stay so split my time between two choices to get a fuller experience.  I would highly recommend both.  The choice depends on your style.  First, I stayed at the Magnolia Inn, an actual restored turn of century mansion.  It’s a mix of hotel and hostel, Staff are very friendly and prices are great.  There is no elevator and you will need to search the neighborhood for entertainment but there are many options only minutes away.

my glamorous room

If you want to glam it up at a super reasonable price and you are a sound sleeper, stay at Tantalo Hotel and gaze at Panama City from the rooftop.  That’s where I spent my birthday, having one of the best hotel experiences of my life.

Stay tuned for more details of a tiny country with a lot to offer still under most people’s radar – exactly when you want to see it 😉

 

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