Written by Mandan Lynn on 24 Jun, 2013
I'm not sure if this tour is something that happens all the time, or if it was just for this weekend, but I found out about it online and thought it would be a great opportunity for us to check out Casco Viejo. My…Read More
I'm not sure if this tour is something that happens all the time, or if it was just for this weekend, but I found out about it online and thought it would be a great opportunity for us to check out Casco Viejo. My aunt and sister were arriving in Panama that weekend, and my boyfriend and I hadn't spent much time in the city, so it would be an opportunity for all of us to get familiar with that area.As it turned out, we spent most of the early part of the day walking around Casco Viejo, anyway, so we had already seen quite a bit of it by the time we met up with the tour at 5:00pm at Tantalo.The tickets were $25 each, and I had bought them online the day before. I knew about the tour nearly a month in advance, but you know how those things go -- I ended up not getting around to buying the tickets until it was almost too late. But I looked at them a few times, and the prices changed: they started at $30 each. Then at one point they were doing a buy one, get one half-price. Then suddenly all tickets were half-price, but the full price was $50. At any rate, I paid $100 for four tickets, under the impression that it was a mini-pub crawl, as well: the first advertisement I had read about the tour said that the price included a drink at each of three bars. When I finally bought the tickets, it said "one complimentary drink."As people filed in for the tour, we felt in over our heads: they were coming in with big cameras and cases, and we had three cameras between the four of us, none of them bigger than a deck of cards. The group organizer, Alberto, made us feel right at ease about it, though, and even accommodated my aunt and sister by speaking in English. Guess what? Tour's in Spanish! We were the only native English speakers there. I had started to suspect that when all the information on the ticket-buying website was in Spanish, but I remained hopeful for the sake of my non-Spanish-speaking family members. I had warned them of the possibility, though, and they still wanted to go through with it.We started on the Tantalo roof for a brief welcome and a few photography tips from a professional photographer. He made himself available throughout the tour to look at the photos you were taking and offer advice, and he occasionally would say, "look here, watch this" and take a photo and show it to us to illustrate one photography point or another.We also had a tour guide, so when we stopped at various points she would share some history with us -- in Spanish and English. We also got to go inside the ruins of the Santo Domingo church and convent, which we were then told is usually not allowed for the public. Indeed, the gates were all closed up earlier in the day when we had passed by.As it got dark, we made our way back to Tantalo for that complimentary drink -- either a beer or a rum punch. We enjoyed that, then made our way toward Ego y Narciso, the restaurant Alberto recommended to us.It wasn't quite what I had expected: I was thinking more pub crawl and more photography advice. But it was still awesome. I took pictures of things I never would have thought to photograph -- it's like it gave me permission to take pictures of doorways and people and strange things, to look at all of that from an artistic standpoint rather than just a recording-of-my-trip standpoint. Falling-down buildings or piles of rubbish don't always record the trip that well, but they are beautiful and artsy and it was fun to see things in that way.I do think that even at $25 it was a little overpriced, but they are offering prizes to the best photographs! Close
Written by Saphira on 15 Jan, 2010
So far the El Charco trail had been disappointing. The suspension bridge at the beginning of the trail at the Soberania National Park had been full of promise and potential. I felt like I was in one of those tropically themed sections…Read More
So far the El Charco trail had been disappointing. The suspension bridge at the beginning of the trail at the Soberania National Park had been full of promise and potential. I felt like I was in one of those tropically themed sections of an amusement park, except this was actually real. I was sure we would spot all kinds of wild life on the trail. I wasn't counting the mosquitoes that were constantly dive bombing me due to my lack of foresight to bring bug spray. We traversed over slippery rocks, slogged through mucky waters and sweated through our t-shirts, and yet the only thing worth noting were some rather impressive fichus trees. In the distance we heard screams. Not terrified screams. It was more like a child’s screams of joy. There was our explanation. Some overly enthusiastic children had sent all the wildlife scurrying away in fright. Approaching a ridge, we could hear the sound of laughter intensifying. I peered over the edge and suddenly became frozen in my tracks. I starred for a few seconds unsure if I should believe what I was seeing. Was that really someone’s naked behind? I motioned for my husband to be quiet and he too peered over the edge. There in a little water reservoir a young man and woman frolicked, their clothing and towels sprawled out on a concrete ledge. They would alternately go from passionately embracing and kissing to childishly running and splashing around in the murky water. The water was unfortunately shallow and when standing they were covered only up to the middle of their thighs, leaving everything that shouldn't be exposed bouncing about quite liberally. Not wanting to appear like weirdo tourist voyeurs, we backtracked on the trail so we could no longer be seen. Somewhat panicked by this set of rather odd circumstances, we took a minute to collect our thoughts and plot out some sort of plan. The trail ahead clearly involved walking across the slab of concrete, scattered with articles of unworn clothing. Certain that we were close to the end of the trail, backtracking to the suspension bridge was not a desirable option. Maybe running around naked in standing bodies of water was no big deal here. Maybe we could just walk by and pretend like there was nothing unusual about them being naked. Maybe they would leave soon and we wouldn't have to worry about it at all. That seemed as likely an option as any. In the end we backtracked on the trail a bit further. The plan would be to make as much noise as possible to announce that two gringo tourists were coming down the trail and perhaps this would prompt our Adam and Eve to hide their nakedness. Stomping the ground and kicking leaves as hard as we could we made our way down the trail giving the lovers enough time to jump up on the concrete slab, she laying in his lap to cover him and he covering her with one of their towels. "Hola," they greeted in unison as we passed. "Hola," we responded, making absolutely no eye contact with them. The concrete slab ended in a clearing. The young couple watched with stifled giggles. I glanced at my husband in desperation. "Where is the path?" I asked under my breath. "I don't know. I don't see it. Where is it?" he uttered slightly panicked. We looked left then right and for the life of us we couldn't figure out where the path continued. I frantically rushed to the edge of the tree line trying to figure out how we could escape this increasingly embarrassing situation. "Here it is," I exhaled, washed with a sense of relief. Once our feet touched the trail we ran for it. We could hear the couple’s laughter echoing through the trees. As we had suspected we were very close to the end of the trail. We came shooting out of the rainforest and didn't stop until we were safely inside the car. We were slightly out of breath when my husband asked,"Did that really just happen?" "I think it did," I replied. "That wasn't the kind of wildlife I wanted to see." Close
Written by Saphira on 20 Jun, 2009
EMERALD MUSEUM Run by the country of Columbia, this former bank turned museum is located in Plaza Francia in the San Felipe section of the city. Though small, the museum is packed with information regarding how emeralds are formed, mined and turned into jewelry.…Read More
EMERALD MUSEUM Run by the country of Columbia, this former bank turned museum is located in Plaza Francia in the San Felipe section of the city. Though small, the museum is packed with information regarding how emeralds are formed, mined and turned into jewelry. The tour guide was sweet and enthusiastic and spoke several different languages. I’ll admit that we only stopped in because it was free and you can use the restroom, but we did stay for the tour, browsed the adjacent shop and found the whole experience enjoyable. I thought it was worth the time just to be able to get a look at the former bank vault (now a life size diorama of a mine) with its heavy massive door. Overall it’s a great place to cool down and use the bathroom if needed.GAMBOA RAINFORESTWe never did any of the prescribed tourist activities at the Gamboa Rainforest and Resort. We had some time to loaf and so we wanted to see what the big deal was all about. The resort’s lobby and grounds were impressive and the view of the rainforest was stunning. It was so eye pleasing that we decided to enjoy it further by eating lunch at the resort’s Corotu restaurant. Our sandwiches were excellent and it was surprisingly affordable for a touristy location. After lunch we took a leisurely stroll around the grounds then lounged in the lobby watching the eclectic mix of international guests buzzing about. It was a great inexpensive way to spend a lazy afternoon. Just watch out if you are driving to Gamboa from the city. There is a bridge, that was originally built for a train and only one car going one way can fit on it at a time, so proceed with caution and be prepared to wait your turn.SUMMIT BOTANICAL GARDENS AND ZOOPerhaps we were just visiting at a bad time of year, or maybe my garden expectations are very high, but we found The Summit Gardens and Zoo to be a bit….lacking. There wasn’t much in bloom so we mostly walked along scalding hot paths viewing various trees and bamboo. I can imagine that during the right time of year it is beautiful. The main draw is the Harpy Eagle exhibit. It is the national bird of Panama and in danger of becoming extinct. The Zoo has an entire conservation program and the eagles were pretty grand looking up close. I didn’t know anything about Harpy eagles before I went, so I did learn something. The other large zoo exhibit involved tapirs, which was okay. There was also an area with various cages that contained some sad looking animals. We did enjoy grabbing a couple of sodas and a shady piece of wall and watching the capuchin monkeys engage in all kinds of shenanigans. For only a dollar per person it’s a nice cheap activity but I would probably place it somewhere near the bottom of your to do list. THE TOP OF ANCON HILLThis former military base turned scenic look out is a must for shutter bugs. It may take a bit of patience to get to the top of the hill as there is only one very narrow road that serves as both the entrance and the exit. Men standing at both the top and the bottom of the hill communicate via walkie- talkie and will let you know when it is safe to enter the road with your car. Walking up the hill is also an option, but that didn’t seem very fun as it is UP hill, but you may like the challenge. The breezes at the top are delightful and the panoramic views of the city are outstanding. You can take sweeping pictures of every section of Panama City from San Felipe to the Centro, to the canal. Although we didn’t do it, I imagine it would be a nice place to have a picnic lunch so you could enjoy the views all the more. There were benches and tables and bathroom facilities and it is free.PLAZA FRANCIA SEA WALL WALK WITH RASPADOSOne of our most memorable afternoons was spent strolling along San Felipe’s sea wall enjoying our raspados. The raspados vender walked around Plaza Francia every afternoon. We approached him and asked him for dos raspados and he quickly went to work shaving ice into two medium sized cups. He then asked us what flavor we wanted. I chose passion fruit and it was very rewarding to find that the juice he poured over the ice was actual fresh squeezed juice and not some chemical sugary fake syrup that vaguely tastes like it used to be a fruit. The vender then took a sports drink bottle and drizzled something white and milky on top of the ice. I thought that this could have been cream, but I’m still not one hundred percent sure. Finally he picked up a water bottle that expelled a liquid that was yellowy orange. I still have no idea what that was, but the combination was intoxicating and it tasted better than any popsicle or snow cone ever could. It was hard to believe that they were only twenty-five cents apiece and if I had discovered the delights of raspados earlier, I might have tried a different flavor every day. We took our treats and strolled along the sea wall, savoring the luxury of unhurried time. Canoodling couples exchanged eskimo kisses under the flower draped arbor. Local women spread out hand sewn mola blankets that were almost, if not more beautiful than the wares they laid upon them. The whole experience was idealistically sublime.MI PUEBLITOWe stumbled upon this tourist trap as we were taking a morning stroll around Ancon Hill. I already knew from reading lots of forums, that it was a complete tourist trap, but since we were there we decided to see just how bad it was. True to what I had researched it was indeed a bunch of souvenir shops built around what was supposed to be a replica of an authentic turn of the century town. Although free, it is a definite skip unless you need to stock up on some hand carved frogs or canal snow globes. There was only one other visitor there who was an expat from the United States who had recently moved to Panama after living the past several years in Costa Rica. As we are aspiring expats, we did have fun talking with her and picking her brain about the finer details of relocating to a Latin American Country.INTEROCEANIC CANAL MUSEUMBeing self-professed museum nerds, this museum was one of the highlights of our visit. More than just a museum about the canal, the exhibits here covered everything from pre-Columbian pottery to Manuel Noriega. We easily spent almost an entire day wandering from floor to floor, room to room soaking in all the history and culture of Panama. We were surprised to find a Japanese tea ceremony being conducted on the bottom level. Friendly staff gave us bitter tasting tea along with little origami cups filled with sweets to go with the tea. They had some other Japanese culture exhibits and somehow at the time we found it funny to be learning about Japan while in Panama. The museum is well laid out and the exhibits are presented beautifully, and the only negative I can think of is that the plaques and information for the exhibits are written in Spanish only. Since I read Spanish better than I speak Spanish, I didn’t find this to be a problem, but if you know absolutely no Spanish, you may not find the exhibits as interesting. Even if you aren’t museum nerds, for only two dollars this museum located in Plaza Francia is worth a look. *Just one extra side note. Much like the whole Casco Viejo verses San Felipe ordeal, the same applies to Plaza de la Independencia verse Plaza Francia. All of the tourist information in books and online called it Plaza de la Independencia but locals still call it Plaza Francia, taxi drivers included. Close
Written by Saphira on 30 May, 2009
There is something about vacation that makes you less annoyed when people driving in front of you are moving slowly. Maybe you are just generally more relaxed or maybe it’s the different scenery. We were taking this laid back approach as we lingered…Read More
There is something about vacation that makes you less annoyed when people driving in front of you are moving slowly. Maybe you are just generally more relaxed or maybe it’s the different scenery. We were taking this laid back approach as we lingered behind a dump truck, making our way toward Panama City. Suddenly in the rear view mirror, we spotted a taxi that was approaching at a rapid speed. "It looks clear, I think I can pass this truck," braved Lord Vader. The taxi seemed as though it was about to kiss our bumper. The road was narrow and there was just enough room for us to pass the truck. As we were going around the truck, we heard a noise to our left. When I looked over I saw the taxi, passing us as we were passing the truck. Let me state that again. We were passing the truck on its left and on our left the taxi was passing us! The taxi wasn’t even on the road. It was speeding through the grass and was precariously close to tumbling down into a ditch, and that was just a taste of what driving in Panama City is like. Driving in Panama City was like Driving in NYC, if everyone driving in NYC had just consumed about ten shots of espresso. There are some very import things to be aware of, if you want to return your rental car in one piece.1) Beware of the Diablo Rojos ( colorful public transportation buses) and taxis. They show no mercy. They have no time to deal with motorists and feel no sorrow in mowing you down, or causing dents in your car.2) Do not drive somewhere and assume that you will be able to return to your original destination by retracing your steps. There are numerous one-way streets that may go on for a long time so you really need to have a separate route for getting there and getting back.3) Go. Don’t slow down, don’t hesitate, and don’t try to read street signs by slowly rolling by. If you are lost, pull over, drivers in Panama City are going somewhere and they need to get there as soon as possible, they don’t care that you are lost and if you are driving too slowly, you will never survive.4) All traffic signs including lights are mere suggestions. It is one of those rare situations where it is just safer to follow the crowd, if the line of cars you are in cuts across four lanes to make illegal left turns, just do what they do.5) The areas around Ancon Hill, The Canal and The Amador Causeway are not that bad; you can easily drive around, and enjoy the scenery. 6) We never rode a Diablo Rojo while we were in Panama City, but we reduced our driving anxiety by taking taxis. For five dollars per trip you can take a taxi to anywhere in the city, and the taxis are safe and abundant. The type of ride is sort of luck of the draw. We took one ride in a cushy black SUV and another in a car without seat belts that we feared would fall completely to pieces before we reached our destination. The taxi drivers are aggressive but they can maneuver better than most stunt drivers. You’ll reach your destination quickly and unharmed. Most drivers spoke English so we never had difficulty conveying our destination. For an added bonus, if you have a really good driver, you’ll get the extra feeling that you’ve just taken a ride on Space Mountain. 7) Honk! Honk! Honk! Get used to that sound; you will be hearing it a lot. Don’t take it personally; everyone blows their horns all the time at everything. If you are driving, live it up and throw out the honks yourself. It’s a good way to relieve stress and since everyone is doing it you won’t have to worry about getting dirty looks or obscene gestures. Close
Written by Saphira on 26 May, 2009
• The surest way to scream, "I’m a tourist!" is to wear shorts. Locals wear pants. If you are a girl Capri pants are fine. Lord Vader and I ended up really loving our cargo pants as they seemed to work best in the…Read More
• The surest way to scream, "I’m a tourist!" is to wear shorts. Locals wear pants. If you are a girl Capri pants are fine. Lord Vader and I ended up really loving our cargo pants as they seemed to work best in the environment, especially when hiking.• Be aware that in small towns, ATMs can run out of money and it may take several days before the cash is replenished. We ran into this situation in El Valle where there is only one ATM in the town and it was out of cash, so we had to drive out of town to find another ATM. • There are a lot of stray dogs and stray packs of dogs that roam around just about everywhere, but especially on the beaches. They were completely harmless, but try not to make my mistake and read Island of the Blue Dolphins while you are on the trip so you remain jumpy whenever the pack of wild dogs pass by. There were also quite a few stray cats. Some were exceedingly friendly and others were not. The dogs didn’t really bother with each other, but there were some cat fights, literally. • If hot water is precious to you, you may want to conduct some further investigations before locking down a place to stay. We encountered two accommodations that did not have hot water even though they said they did. Since we didn’t really stay in either for that long, complaining seemed pointless. • Not every accommodation offers you those free little soaps and shampoos so make sure you bring your own toiletries. Also there were a couple of places that did not have washcloths or puffy sponges or anything like that to wash yourself with so you may want to pack some durable quick drying washcloths just to be on the safe side. • There is quite a lot of litter in Panama, especially at the beach. It was a bit depressing to be lolling in the crystal blue water and have a juice box or a potato chip bag float past. Like me, if you come from a background where you were taught to "give a hoot and don’t pollute" you may be playing litter patrol during some of your trip.• Like most Latin American countries dinner is eaten late at night and something we found interesting, the malls close fairly early. I assume so everyone can go home and eat dinner with their family and friends. You also have to remember to ask for your bill when you want to leave a restaurant. "La cuenta, por favor," is what you need to say to request it. It’s a nice custom and I enjoyed not feeling rushed through my meals, but I must admit it took one long and awkward dinner waiting for about an hour wondering if the waiter was ever going to bring the check, to learn about this little detail.• You do not need to be fluent in Spanish to travel in Panama, but you should be familiar with common phrases and words, especially words that have to do with driving and directions and food. Almost everyone we came across spoke English, and spoke it first to us without asking what language we spoke (I am very pale, freckled and blue eyed, so I guess they just assumed). You will have to read the occasional menu (although many were in Spanish and English), street sign or tourist sight plaque. With ipods and websites, it is incredibly easy to learn another language, plus it makes it easier to eaves drop at restaurants and other people watching sights.• Casco Viejo was the name used in all of the guide books and on the websites I visited for the old, but not oldest part of Panama City. During the entire time we were in Panama and specifically in Panama City not one local referred to that area as Casco Viejo, everyone we met still calls it San Felipe.• Yes the driving in Panama is crazy, but that experience deserves a journal all its own.• We found Panama to be a very safe country and everyone was helpful and friendly to visitors. The only irritating situation we encountered was in Portobello. I had read about the local children offering to "watch" your car while you roam around the forts, so I was already prepared for the exchange. When we stopped at the first fort, as expected, a boy approached and asked if he could watch our car. We said sure and then walked around. When we returned to the parking lot he ran up to us with a whole group of friends tagging along behind. We gave him the customary five dollars, but then all of his eight or so friends started insisting that they ALL watched the car and they each deserved five dollars. We refused, and started making our way to our car. They kept yelling at us and running around us and holding out their hands insisting that they all should be paid. They even tried to block us from entering our car, but we sort of just ignored them and got into the car and drove away while they were still yelling and banging on the car. After we exited the parking lot, they moved on to harass someone else. Close
Written by Saphira on 22 May, 2009
ALBERTO'S Located on the Amador Causeway in the Flamenco section, this Italian restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating. I highly suggest the outdoor seating as it includes a refreshing breeze and interesting views of people…Read More
ALBERTO'S Located on the Amador Causeway in the Flamenco section, this Italian restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating. I highly suggest the outdoor seating as it includes a refreshing breeze and interesting views of people readying their yachts. They have an ample variety of Italian dishes, but as it was lunch time, we settled on a pizza. The crust was thin and the sauce was a chunky pomodoro. The four cheese pizza yielded six slices, which was more than enough to tide us over until dinner. Two iced teas and one pizza cost $11.50 and with good food and enjoyable scenery, Alberto’s makes nice diversion from all of your sight- seeing.EL BARKO With its casual open atmosphere and exceptionally friendly wait staff, El Barko is a great laid back dinner destination. Located on the Amador Causeway in the Flamenco section El Barko boasts a huge menu which is thankfully offered in both English and Spanish. I ordered the two fish two ways deal and was treated to a huge piece of Mahi Mahi in tropical sauce and an equally ample portion of Sea Bass finished teriyaki style. Coconut beans and rice accompanied the dish. The food was really yummy and we only spent thirty dollars for two drinks and two seafood entrees. If you go to El Barko, try to go on the weekends when the party Diablo Rojos are out and about. From the outdoor balcony of the restaurant you can watch as these buses complete with disco balls, party lights and a DJ sitting in the back, drop off revelers prepared to get their dance on at the nearby clubs. It’s some of the best people watching the city has to offer.THE WINE BAR Small plates and an abundant wine list make this restaurant a superb place to while away an evening. Initially we had intended to partake of some wine and one or two small dishes, but after consuming our olive tapenade and melon wrapped in prosciutto, we just had to sample more. Our waitress was very attentive and assisted us in narrowing down the large plates. In a fun and playful manner, she would not write down our choices until we said them out loud with proper Spanish accents. In the South American fashion, we took our time, slowly savoring the mushroom risotto and corvina in curry sauce. The restaurant had no intentions of trying to hustle us out of the door, for their desire was that all of their diners have a relaxed and enjoyable meal. A band played smooth jazz as we leisurely drained a bottle of white wine and watched the hustle and bustle of the causeway from our outdoor table. At $70.27, The Wine Bar was one of the more expensive dining experiences we had while in Panama, yet it still seemed reasonable as we indulged in two small plates, two large plates and a bottle of wine. The food was so scrumptious, we vowed to return before departing for home, but alas, we simply ran out of time.BUFFALOS' Located on the Amador Causeway in the same center as El Barko, this low key restaurant offers a nice break if you want food that isn’t too challenging. It is the same fare you will find in most chain/bar type restaurants. The menu is in both English and Spanish and the wait staff is friendly and laid back. I had beef skewers that were good, not fantastic, but good. Two entrees and drinks were under thirty dollars. This is a good place for pickier eaters who may not want to brave more local establishments and it’s also a nice break if you need to go somewhere and order something where you know exactly what you are getting. There are no surprises.TGI FRIDAYS Yes, yes I know we broke the cardinal rule of cool travelers by eating at a restaurant that we could easily eat at while at home, but we had a long day of driving, we were tired, hungry and it was so conveniently located inside of our hotel. There were some things worth mentioning that will hopefully keep me from being completely dishonored. 1) The waiters and waitresses at this particular TGI Fridays still wear the pieces of flair that our local chains have long since abandoned. If you’re a fan of Office Space this is good for a few line recitations and some snickering (not while the waiter or waitress is present of course). 2) Our local TGI Fridays took the Oreo Madness dessert off of the menu a long time ago, which is pretty much the only thing I ever liked. To my absolute elation, the dessert is alive, well and thriving in Panama. After we finished sharing an appetizer I was happy to see my old friend appear on my table and I dug into its chocolate cookie ice creamy goodness with reckless abandonment. 3) There was a live band that played 80’s songs as though it were the coolest most popular music reaching your ears today.4) Finally, this particular TGI Fridays was located at the Country Inns and Suites on the Amador Causeway. The tables were outside allowing diners to enjoy a cool night breeze while illuminated ships lumbered to and from the canal.TGI Friday’s is worth it if you are tired, hungry or you just have a longing for the familiar. Just be careful who you tell or you’ll get an earful about eating at "American" chains while visiting another country. Close
Written by Jose Kevo on 14 May, 2007
For Optimum Viewing
"No matter what you do, this year or in the next hundred,you will be dead forever." Gabriel García MárquezOnce bitten; twice shy. And the third time, just because. Gritty city streets that offend most people are like an irresistible obsession; enticements to my…Read More
For Optimum Viewing
"No matter what you do, this year or in the next hundred,you will be dead forever." Gabriel García MárquezOnce bitten; twice shy. And the third time, just because. Gritty city streets that offend most people are like an irresistible obsession; enticements to my vagabond spirit. Finding myself in places most won't dare or care to know even exist is beyond observance. And then, there was the disreputable haunt of a place like the Casco Viejo district; billed as one of Panamá City's most alluring but speculative attractions.
Walking along Avenida Balboa's malecón on my first jaunt through the city, arcing shape of the bay imparted a distant sliver cleaving the hazy blue canvas. Pinned between sky and sea, the mélange of ponderous structures was consummated with a terra cotta sprawl, ruptured only by Cathedral spires. A frontage of withering piers gave way to the fortified city; ominous bulwarks once a source of protection against outsiders.Close but yet so far, the waterfront vistas groveled with inclinations during those first days. Information and local advice were unanimous about potential perils of visiting this barrio. Frankly, sketchiness of Panamá City seemed to be ripening everywhere else, almost to the point of dread. If this was the norm, exactly how sinister would the admonished be?Traipsing around ruins of La Vieja on a radiant Easter morning, an American college student crossed my path to enliven desolation. Trying to force his final hours, the "second city" was all he'd yet to check. I recognized the same sense of hesitancy, and jumped all over the prospect of mutual escort. If third mugging in a lifetime was destiny, the safety in numbers tip-off would only sweeten culprit spoils.Passing along Avenida Central, the pedestrianized shopping-mecca of the equally chancy Calidonia and Santa Ana districts, sacrilegious multitudes had converted the Holy holiday into a bandy of indulgence, stewing since Fat Tuesday.
Clutching backpacks, we dodged through the circus with dastardly purpose; the paleface beacon-in-tow my greatest consequence. Pausing to regroup amid the chaotic Santa Ana plaza, we'd come to edge of the frying pan; jumping into the proverbial fire waiting beyond the busy intersection.Just a Coca-Cola HomeboyArmed with nothing more than cold beverages and concealed cameras, we immediately fell prey to what would prove to be the greatest cause for alarm - Mother Nature. Yes, when she forged this most innocent peninsula of the Panamá isthmus, there was no intent towards future ramifications involving crook by hook.
Standing in front of Café Coca-Cola, sharp coercion of the terrain was indecipherable for knowing the historic district waited to the left. Shabby enticements baited adventure to the right, and I conceded to the puzzling layers of poverty and decay. Barely getting a couple of photos, an older gentleman endorsed a scathing reprimand to get out while we could!
Taking advice as yet another paranoid alarm, we dallied along sidewalks under rows of disheveled balconies. Dank, inanimate laundry concealed the screeching birds in cages and vigilantes surveying our every move. Allure was nothing more than a read-between-the-lines No Trespassing sign. Yet I was in my element reliving glory days of NYC and ghetto decorum.Callous poise was the badge for turf invasion, exempting the callow deputy as well. Infringement was the least of worries even parading through a corner swarming with riff-raff. The most brazen accost was from another well-meaning individual, more than eager to guide us beyond the menacing neighborhood of El Chorrillo.The three-block walk, presumably separating good from evil, would determine more than just a turning point of appropriate direction. Panamá City's saving graces were about to be rescued, too.Philandering with the PhantomsProwling suspects left behind, the dispossessed sovereignty of Casco Viejo began to extend in a manner which ignited apprehension. Streets and plazas were utterly deserted. Venturing into the crumbling labyrinth hinted towards entrapment of the most gullible kind. My carrot-top comrade stuck close, but otherwise didn't seem the least bit bothered. Perhaps ignorance was bliss.
At high-noon, the only ambush was executed from a scorching sun; conceivably the sole ally of this immortal enclave. The wide-open expanse of Parque Herrera, looming more like a forsaken battlefield, was a valid place to take cover while figuring out exactly where we were. I thought it safe to expose ourselves as "tourists" by pulling out the guidebook; not that anyone was watching except a bellicose General.Quickly strategizing our invasion, the dead give away was stashed and substituted with something declaring a bit more fire power. My accomplice followed by maneuvering his palm-sized digital. What ensued was a sharp-shooting exercise, camouflaged with a flurry of touristic impetuosity. Making quick work of the abandoned maze was under defense of his pending flight.
As if standing under a magna fine glass, vulnerability shimmered while watching the compatriot's taxi vanish. Sweat dripping down back of my neck generated a chill against the saturated shirt. With no sense tempting fate, I headed the same direction, on-foot.The map would later divulge all that was missed in tainted haste. There was no second-guessing what had to be done. Waiting until Tuesday morning once museums reopened, I conscientiously retraced the paths of least resistance, though little about them was familiar.
Hosts of everyday people were now associating with the heat and history, enlivened after the holiday defection. At first, the vibrant transformation was abrupt. Trying to distinguish between friend or foe, along busy streets, was a futile mission until coming to terms with my own insignificance. I wasn't even a blip on the radar.
Alien contour was clearly translucent thanks to voluptuous sirens neutralizing co-workers, construction verracos, and other capable aggressors. I had to snicker. One of these temptresses was worth an entire posse of gun- wielding escorts for insuring safe passage. False pretenses were eventually stripped; melting away in the fervor of hot pursuit.After almost a week in the capital, the indubitable Panamá City was unveiling itself block by block to finally captivate genuine expectations. Resurrection had occurred two days late; hardly preposterous in a frivolous nation where time seems to have little relevance, and Casco cathedral doors weren't even unlocked for Easter. Besides, other than cool respite, the hallowed caverns fostered nothing more than passing dogma -- betrayed by memoirs emblazoned beyond.Eventually, wandering for the sake of wondering was embroiled with imminent turmoil brewing on the afternoon horizon. Spain's subsequent endeavor on the Pacific had proven invincible to marauders of yore, and distinctly illicit to newcomers centuries later, but this exclusive conquest had been mine. Savoring exploit, I was content to slip away while leaving behind the notorious worst, of what would turn out to be the very best that Panamá City could afford.Enrichments of a RenegadePlans were laid to spend final day in other parts of the libertine metropolis. Over-rated and disappointing, I found myself trailing towards the only sector worthy of presence; a third pilgrimage vindicated by nothing more than consolation. Then again, perhaps only I could seek nostalgia amid the accursed realms of a proximity like Casco Viejo.An influx of vacillating virgins had occupied tourist guides and police. Without discernments, intermittent investigations were left to my own recognition. There was nothing in particular that had to be seen. Ambitions had already been satisfied. I was craving the comforts of whatever waited off the beaten paths, where only nationals made themselves at home.Disappearing into the colonial clutter, the array of portentous lifestyles was sedated by warmth; though hardly apathetic at top of the siesta hour. While streets might have been temporarily forsaken, sublime balconies stirred with chatter. Humidity had sopped-up the lunchtime redolence wafting from kitchens; a hint of Salsa further seasoning the ambience with rhythm, and I gorged with gusto on the nourishment.Prudence, and accountability for the novice decoy, had obviously led the first scouting sortie astray. An immature exile would've proven the only thing contemptuous. The healthy sense of respect, necessary for inaugural deliverance, was now bronzed with secure admiration. Palpable bravado disregarded any tourist taboos. With nothing left to surrender, the covert charisma became incarnated -- once daring to look into the eyes of a stranger.
Duration is the copious misfortune of destitution; character that could never be grasped or even photographed without a sense of belonging. Seizing the extraordinary was mine for the taking; exclusion ultimately averted by inclusion. If only redemption could've dawned before my final hours. Earnestly, it had.After almost three weeks combing the country's magnificent natural realms and ersatz capital, there was no more searching or disbelieves. I'd finally arrived in Panamá. And the sky wept. Close
Written by Jose Kevo on 27 Nov, 2006
If you think howler monkeys in the surrounding hills can stir-up quite the commotion, they're nothing compared to what puts the rumble in the concrete jungle of Panamá City! Red Devils are the fiends reeking havoc through streets of the capitol; appropriately called Los Diablos…Read More
If you think howler monkeys in the surrounding hills can stir-up quite the commotion, they're nothing compared to what puts the rumble in the concrete jungle of Panamá City! Red Devils are the fiends reeking havoc through streets of the capitol; appropriately called Los Diablos Rojos though scarlet, crimson, ruby, and cherry are hardly extent of tones.Vivid and vibrant, these magnates of the capitol's public transportation system might just be the city's greatest attractions by default. The revved-up school buses are everywhere; cultural icons with their colorful murals and decorations. Even if you manage to track down the Contemporary Art Museum, exhibitions pale in comparison with what's constantly on parade through the streets.As a fan of street graffiti, usually found in rather shady areas of metropolitan cities, finding shade and pulling-up a ledge was enthrallment for watching these motley machines flash their masterpieces in motion. Many Caribbean islands and Latin American countries have colorfully painted vehicles, but nothing compared to these capitol femme fatales.There's some amazing local talent using the skillful art of air-brush painting, but that's hardly the extent. Drivers add their own personal touches with accessories that would disgrace efforts from MTV's hit show, Pimp My Ride. Mag wheels, tinted windows; stereo systems that could wake the dead - and if you think daytime spectacles are eccentric, wait until darkness when all the neon flares-up both inside and out.Visual overload is nothing compared to the sensual or audible. Aside from mounds of garbage lining downtown streets, Los Diablos Rojos are undoubtedly the city's other greatest source of pollution; belching black smoke through customized chrome exhaust pipes. With no such things as mufflers, mass-reverberations are thunderous!These transportation beasts prowl like the hounds of hell; Pandora's boxes on wheels enticing the multitudes. Forbidden folly has never been so inviting or assaulting. Curiosity was piqued and twisted from how the endless fleet bursts through streets at a heart-pounding pace.Getting mowed-down in the crosswalk is a game of chance like some anonymous sport. Near-misses are met with cheers and precautionary scoldings; foreigners not exempt from the high-stake terrors of gambling with eternities.And just think - all this stems from the sidewalk anecdote, without even engaging a Beelzebub tryst. Go on, compromise your travel piety and hitch a ride. I dare any traveler to try and resist temptation. Like a flirtatious Catholic school girl, contrition is half the fun, even on a permissible, frequent basis.Haunts and Jaunts of the DevilsBetween taxis and walking, a traveler could totally avoid helter skelter of Los Diablos Rojos, and miss-out on one of the city's most authentic experiences. Budget bangers won't hesitate throwing caution to the wind when realizing these buses peruse the entire metropolitan area, and no where costs more than 25¢ for the ride!Baptism by fire can start upon arrival at the airport. Otherwise, expect to haggle with taxi and van drivers wanting no less than $15 for shared rides into the city. Bus stops are an easy 10-minute walk beyond the terminal along the highway; ones heading towards the capitol collecting on far side of the circular turn-around.Scanning the open countryside, I saw the beacon approaching from far off in the distance. Locals were all eyes and ears as to my purpose, assuring all buses would pass through Albrook Station; main terminal of the capitol. Allowing me to board first insured a place to sit, with bag crammed under the seat. I breathed a sigh of relief, and quickly melted into the ambience of Panamá.As previously described, this mode of transportation is not for the timid or anyone in a hurry, regardless of where you're headed. Ride between the airport and Albrook took about 90-minutes in heavy mid-day traffic while making innumerable stops and dodging road construction. Supposedly there's express buses along busier routes, but there's no way to distinguish between the two even if asking locals.For all the glory of outer embellishments, interiors are lacking to the opposite extreme except for ample stereo systems. First of all, they're school buses; uncomfortable to ride under even the best conditions. Seats are mangled, there's little leg room, and just like former school days, ones over the wheelwell are last to be claimed.Panamanians think nothing of cramming three to a seat, before aisles fill-up. There's also little recognition for letting passengers off first before others begin boarding. Excuse the peccadillos, and at least be thankful there are no pigs or chickens to further crowd conditions. These are city folks!As likely the only gringo onboard, expect to feel like the main attraction; helpfulness disguising curiosities. Here's where basic Spanish becomes essential, whether waiting to board or determining where to exit. I suppose there's a method to the insanity, but figuring-out the foux pas happens too frequently after the fact.All buses supposedly have major destinations and routes posted somewhere on windshields. Good luck trying to spot these on the fly when all that's seen is an outburst of chaos and color barrelling-in. Barkers stand in the door calling-out stops, and reeling-in passengers, literally. Unless there's multiple passengers to exit or board, don't expect even much of a rolling stop.At some point in-route, most every bus passes through Albrook Terminal and Plaza Cinco de Mayo. The narrow road which separates the terminal from the mall is a continuous stop for buses heading into the city. It's much the same for Diablos whizzing around the plaza, but here's where things got real interesting.Even with these two main stops listed on windshields, there's absolutely no way to tell which direction the bus is headed. Further adding to confusion are the loop-around intersections, and the fact that individual routes are extremely long!On my first day in the city, not familiar with where anything was, I caught a bus in Plaza Cinco de Mayo; hoping to reach Albrook Terminal. There was no way to determine that's where the bus had just came from. 30-minutes later, when realizing we were half-way back to the airport on the opposite end of town, I was more than miffed!Not knowing how long route would extend before heading back towards Albrook, I exited, crossed the highway, and caught a bus heading back into the city. Service was limited because of Good Friday. Buses were beyond overcrowded, and it was hard to see locations while standing. Between this, and the reckless weaving and near-miss collisions while drivers jockeyed for positions at stops, it about scared the hell out of me!It took the next couple of days to semi-grasp my bearings within the city, and figure out how to use the transportation system without getting lost. Unless you're really observant for what's going on, and have a keen sense of direction, avoid trying to board buses at Plaza Cinco de Mayo, period! Here's other logistical factors to be aware of:-- Short-hops are easiest between the neighborhoods of La Exposición, (from anywhere north of Cinco de Mayo) and El Cangrejo because streets follow rather direct courses, and are mostly one-way. Via España heads towards downtown; Avenida 1a Sur/Perú and Avenida 3a Sur/Justo Arosemena run towards El Cangrejo. Avenida 6a Sur/Balboa runs along the waterfront in both directions.-- If staying anywhere within this central area, or the neighborhood where my hotel reviews are located, buses back to the airport pass along Avenida 3a Sur. Whether it was paranoia of the locals or more fact than fiction, they did not recommend waiting at stops in the dark, with luggage for early morning departures.-- All buses are pay as you exit, never costing more than 25¢. In fact, shorter routes cost less, whether driver gives change back or not.Mules in Horses' HarnessesIn trying to convert Panamá City into a modern luxury destination, the Devils' days are numbered; ultimate outcome likely no more dubious than with current problems of pollution, accidents and even fatalities involving public transportation.There's nothing fuel efficient about these school buses; Panamá also gripped by rising oil prices. Independent drivers can no longer survive, but also can't raise fares when they primarily exist to serve a destitute public. Frequent strikes by owners and drivers, as well as outcries for assistance, will not go unanswered.Beginning next year, the Panamanian government plans on switching to standard buses like found in most cities. Minimizing pollution will be a plus, but its hard to fathom how much else could change any time soon because the entire system will need overhauling, including private entrepreneurs becoming city employees.To my knowledge, there's been no mention on what will become of Los Diablos Rojos. Panamá City won't be the same without them. I guess if cities around the world can be inundated with painted cows, these Latin American degenerates are certainly worth a parade, too whether parked or on the prowl. Close
Arriving in Panamá City at 2:30am on Good Friday, the taxi whizzed through a maze of empty streets and red-light intersections with nothing to fear. Lucho was busy spouting instructions for reconnecting on Saturday, but was also reluctant to abandon me at a hotel he…Read More
Arriving in Panamá City at 2:30am on Good Friday, the taxi whizzed through a maze of empty streets and red-light intersections with nothing to fear. Lucho was busy spouting instructions for reconnecting on Saturday, but was also reluctant to abandon me at a hotel he wasn't acquainted with. Playing the good host involved surveying the neighborhood before flying up steps to inquisition the night clerk.Sometimes, fussiness of typical Latin hospitality can wear a little thin even under the best intentions. Lucho continued with the do's and don'ts while repeatedly referencing hospital across the street; just "in case" of emergency. Perhaps I'd shared too many stories about previous travel escapades, and precautions were necessary for preventing another.The following day, interchange with the desk lady was a little berating about thoughtlessness of going out with my black leather backpack. Preparing to leave it in the room, pulling out camera caused an even greater flurry of commotion. It was determined camera was safer concealed in the backpack; pleadings to be careful blessed with a quick incantation.Here I was on this Holy day, ready to curse Lucho for converting my hotel crew into meddlesome babysitters. Stopping to ask directions, a security guard pointed towards downtown but quickly diverted my path to what was "said" to be safer.Everything was closed for the holiday; streets abandoned just like on the mid-night arrival. Yet every person I did pass seemed to have some type of caution or warning about being in the streets. Lucho couldn't possibly have persuaded the entire city, but I was getting highly annoyed and rather defensive until uneasiness began to stir.What did these people know that I didn't? Had vulnerability risen without additional safety in numbers, or would risks escalate when everyone returned from the holiday? Come Monday, more people only meant more precautionary warnings. Truth be told, travelers need to prepare for these as much as actual risks--whatever those might be.Paranoia will DestroyaIt's been less than 20-years since the U.S launched a small-scale war which ousted Manuel Noriega, and tore-up Panamá City in the process. Chronicles way depending upon which side of the story is being told. I wanted to hear local perspectives, but got very little.Lucho eventually told some childhood memories about hiding for days with his family, prepared to flee the country based on his father's influential occupation. Biggest confession was never giving the entire ordeal much thought. It's part of the local conditioning; survival mode well-rehearsed by everyone.Latin America has been plagued with dictatorship regimes, where anyone even suspected of opposition simply vanished off face of the earth. Democracy might have been restored in Panamá, but lifestyles are still crippled by real beliefs that unknown peril awaits at any moment! Panamá City does have plenty of high-alert areas, but locals could easily intimidate travelers into venturing nothing. For the most part, there's nothing to fear but fear itself!
Some might find the heavy presence of military and police disturbing. Dressed in camouflage and toting high-powered rifles, they were everywhere but do not be dismayed. Take comfort in the added security, and expect to be frequently questioned or cautioned in the name of well-being.Whether it's part of the legacy or trying to build Panamá as a safe and desirable destination, officials and pedestrians are tripping over themselves to insure travelers have no problems. And trust me--they take this hospitality obligation quite seriously, if not to extreme.By law, foreigners are required to carry passport and tourist card with them at all times. With street theft always a possibility, I carried photocopies until questioned by an officer one night. Luckily, I was near my hotel and offered to quickly retrieve originals. The situation was difused, but stern warning issued was that anyone not possessing appropriate documents could be taken off to prison. Based on the number of paddy wagons toolin' around, they mean business!On-the-Make; Forbidden OpportunitiesRegardless of where you venture in the city, here's something to expect and prepare for: Panamanians are rather bold in their approaches, that involve more than just safety precautions. Solicitations for innumerable reasons are inevitable; harmless yet brazen as they often were. Actually, it brings all their warnings full-circle, whether from a guilty conscious or knowing others' capabilities.There seems to be a love-hate fascination with Americans and the U.S. presence involving the canal over the last century. It's the "lovers" you'll need to watch-out for! The infamous Latin libido is alive and well in Panamá City, and the first tell-tale sign will be trying to find accommodations that don't also rent rooms by the hour.A "Push" is defined in this Review. Discretion should spare modest foreigners the blushing shock, but its happening everywhere. Away from El Cangrejo's upscale hotels, many of the city's other establishments operate on this sole purpose while also booking legitimate travelers.Neighboring improprieties can be disregarded inside hotel rooms, but not within the streets -- especially for single male or female travelers. Being out at night was open invitation for propositions, including drugs; the other illicit hot commodity. At no point did I ever feel insulted or intimidated, but the repeat advancements became obnoxious when dispersed amid do-gooders warnings and advice.While there's plenty of local homeless loitering around, beggars are in the form of down-and-out gringos; usually younger junky-types that have obviously lost their way. Don't be fooled by the clean-cut appearance! The well-rehearsed, fast-talking excuses are a load of crap that a couple of dollars won't solve.A Panamanian never specifically asked for money, including the slut-factor, but legitimate offers were made involving standard services; especially regarding transportation. When walking day or night, expect people to pull over offering rides at the very least. Taxis come in all shapes and colors, but have very tell-tale signs (or lights) of authenticity.While I never would've accepted a roadside offer, hotel employees were almost too eager to drive me to the airport for half the cost of a taxi. It seemed harmless enough to agree while understanding Latinos are always trying to make an extra buck. They were quick to emphasize how dangerous the corner bus-stop would be at 4:30am; probably no more risky than riding off in the dark with a total stranger! Gut instinct dodged them all by leaving 30-minutes early, and paying extra for a taxi.Tourist TrapsThanks to the average wage paying $1.25 an hour, the majority of people are extremely impoverished. Offensive filthiness of the city only heightens the horror. Public transportation peruses through some menacing-looking areas you'd never see otherwise. Let these be wake-up calls, especially for top attractions explorable only on-foot.Travel information warns about going too far around ruins of Panamá Vieja. Quite honestly, the area didn't look or feel that bad. Transportation drop-off/pick-up is at the entrance, so roaming isn't necessary. There's no need to venture towards residential borders hemming expansive lawns of the site. Exploring Casco Viejo is a very different story, though it shouldn't be missed or avoided.This area was fascinating on many levels; especially to see historic buildings refashioned in full-glory by wealthy investors, but there's still a long-way to go. Over the last century, this entire area has decayed as a housing slum; part of the intrigue and also part of the problem!Aside from law and military, these gritty streets also have heavy presence of tourist police and guides that will not hesitate to redirect paths if venturing towards the wrong places. Well-meaning locals jump-in just as quickly; especially when seeing cameras or sense vulnerability or weaknesses within tourists.
Sidewalks and corners are filled with riff-raff types directed by look-outs on overhead balconies. Heart of the historic district isn't as dangerous as surrounding areas, but it's still not a place to go wandering about cluelessly. Arriving/departing using taxis minimizes risks; walkers should use common sense, awareness, and heed locals' advice.From Plaza Cinco de Mayo, Avenida Central becomes a pedestrianized walkway slicing through the shopping district of Calidonia and Santa Ana. Pickpockets could be waiting amid the masses, but greater risks would be venturing down side streets.
When coming to Parque Santa Ana, this plaza became uncomfortable thanks to psychotic-type homeless, very anti-tourist. Where the busy intersection fans in six directions, pin-point Café Coca Cola. Avenida Central, and the direct way to Casco Viejo is on the left. Venturing right is not only risky, you'll quickly get escorted out by the good guys under leering eyes of the very obvious bad guys.Many budget accommodations are in these speculative downtown areas. I returned one night with a local, and while enjoying accompanied experience, there's no way I'd want to be here after dark on my own! By day, it was the only place within Panamá City I indulged with cautious repeat visits. Close
Written by wanderluster on 23 Dec, 2003
Reading up on Panama City prior to my trip I knew that I wanted to dine in this former dungeon–-built into a seawall along the Pacific Coast–-where prisoners once dangled from chains over rising waters, tempting hungry sea creatures who ripped into tasty morsels of…Read More
Reading up on Panama City prior to my trip I knew that I wanted to dine in this former dungeon–-built into a seawall along the Pacific Coast–-where prisoners once dangled from chains over rising waters, tempting hungry sea creatures who ripped into tasty morsels of flesh.
Aware that Las Bovedas was not open on Sundays, we had made 10pm dinner reservations for Wednesday, our only other night in Panama City, which happened to be our first night in Panama. Landing at 9pm, we were cutting it close. Tammy and her husband from Panoramic Panama were there to meet us and drove us the 45 minutes from the international airport into the city, stopping to drop off our luggage at their guesthouse on Cerro Ancon before dropping us off at the restaurant minutes later.
Once we entered the quaint Casco Viejo district high rises of modern steel and fast food restaurants gave way to narrow brick-lined streets, peeling pastel-colored homes with plants cascading over balconies and jazz clubs reminiscent of New Orlean's French Quarter. At the end of the peninsula was a seawall bordering the large three-story Instituto Nacional De Cultura and romantic looking Las Bovedas Restaurant.
Donna and I stepped into the weathered concrete seawall housing the restaurant, immediately sensing the history and intrigue of the dining room that resembled a castle more than a prison. Narrow walls and curved vaulted ceiling created out of bricks, stones and concrete were softened by warm polished woods and low lighting in the intimate dining area. A bar decorated with model sailboats and stacked wine bottles were the backdrop for six tables set with green linens. A lively French foursome occupied another table, the only other guests.
A waiter dressed in a white Panamanian dress shirt and slacks greeted us with a winning smile and a string of foreign words. He asked what we'd like to drink–without producing a wine list–and all we were able to communicate was our preference for rojo or blanco. His eyes twinkled as he smiled at our feeble attempt before nodding and hurrying away to produce the finest wine I've ever tasted. Later in the meal, he brought out the bottles to show us the labels, which I meant to remember. But perhaps I enjoyed the wine a little too much . . . So smooth, it calmed nerves still frayed from our plane ride. Sudden turbulence had sent us flying out of our seats, scattering food, beverages and belonging into laps, shoes, everywhere. Surround sound screaming, wailing and crying crescendoed as Donna and I clutched each other and began praying, scared and strangely quiet realizing the possibility that we might not survive.
Ritilio, our waiter, brought over the chalkboard menu. We perused the Spanish words guessing at their meanings. Sopa had to be soup, ensaladas salads. I started with Ensalada cesar and Donna with her favored calamari calamares apanados. Both were excellent.
Deciding on our entrees was a little bit more challenging. Donna was first to extract salmon from the menu and awkwardly read the description aloud. Ritilio smiled and repeated the choice, the name of the salmon entree rolling off his tongue. Without thinking, Donna clapped her hands exclaiming, "Good job! Good job!" to which I couldn't help from laughing. Of course he knows how to pronounce it, I said. "Oh, yeah. I guess he would," she said, tucking her cheek into her shoulder. "Good job!" became the catchphrase of our trip, repeated with giggles whenever anyone did anything successful, no matter how small.
The salmon was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Succulent and cooked to perfection, it didn't really need the complement of three different cream, garlic, and herb sauces, yet they added a flavorful sensation with each bite. Asparagus, collard greens, and a mound of warm tomato, corn, and squash salsa accompanied the salmon along with a basket of rolls, served with puffs of herb butter.
After dinner, Ritilio gestured us to follow him. He posed for our photos, handcuffing himself to a chained ball attached to the wall once used for prisoners. Then lifted a curtain leading to a darkened room and entered. Donna looked back at me, unsure whether or not to follow. After all, we were alone in an unfamiliar place where we didn't speak the language. But it turned out to be another narrow dining room with a curved brick ceiling where musicians played jazz a couple nights a week. It was empty now, except for a couple seated on a couch who separated from an intimate embrace when we entered. Ritilio led us up to the bar, took our photo then went behind the counter to fix us a drink. Neither of us wanted anything more. Instinctively he knew and brought us water. He led us to a tiny table in an alcove, and pointed out the window. We looked, but couldn't see anything. What did he expect us to see? It was midnight. Not a soul was roaming about. He lit a candle for us then disappeared behind the curtain.
Puzzled we sat there, watching the flame flicker against the fortress wall. The brochure Ritilio left behind told of it's original purpose. Juan Bautista Antonelly built the fortress in 1688 to safeguard gold from frequent pirate attacks. The fortress was considered Panama's primary defense when the city was rebuilt in Casco Viejo after Henry Morgan demolished the original Old Panama in 1671. Centuries later Las Bovedas was used as a military prison. In the early 1900s, prisoners were chained to the wall and tortured by sea creatures when the tide rose up to their necks. Just how many died is pure speculation.
We wondered why he had brought us in here. It was late. A tiring travel day. We needed to get back to our guesthouse. Within minutes, lights from a taxi appeared in the window, and we realized that Ritilio had been looking after us, sobering us up for our taxi ride home. What impeccable service! Intriguing atmosphere, outstanding food, and an fun friendly waiter made this dining experience extra special. A fabulous introduction to Panama!
Located on Plaza Francia in Casco Viejo. Open Monday through Saturday for dinner. Jazz on the weekends from 9pm-1am. Phone: 507-228-8068.