Panama City is reportedly the most cosmopolitan city in Central America. It certainly has an imposing, and steroid-induced growing, skyline. But the charm of this city lies in its old town, Casco Viejo, where an abundance of old buildings now housing art galleries, cafés and shops await tourist exploration.
We were booked into the very luxurious and new hotel, the Grace Panama, located in the Obarrio area – about 15 minutes cab ride to the old town centre. Our first afternoon was spent relaxing by the pool on the 12th floor, reading, writing and being mesmerised by the black vultures swooping and soaring around the tops of the tower buildings, the number of them increasing as the day waned.
Pre-dinner drinks in the bar downstairs, served by the charming David, set the tone for the evening before heading to Maito. Like most of our dinner choices, this one was in the old town, so we had the first of what was to become a nightly game with the taxi driver to negotiate a price for the journey. There are no metres in the taxis, and being collected at a posh hotel meant that the drivers were immediately jacking up the price. Most of these exchanges were quite good humoured, and others were down right unpleasant. But dinner at Maito was lovely. Had a fabulous goat’s cheese and tomato and green leaf salad and a smoky bok choy dish followed by a Portobello mushroom and asparagus risotto. There was a lovely outdoor area at this restaurant and good service.
Our tour for the following day was another crossing off of the bucket list: a half day cruise on the Panama Canal, one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. This was a truly fascinating experience – we had both travelled through locks before, but nothing on this scale. The pace of travel through the canal is of course dictated by the rising and lowering of the water levels in the locks, which is a relaxing and almost hypnotic experience. Panama is currently in the process of building a second larger system of locks parallel to the existing canal, which is expected to double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2016.
The cruise company provided a bit of morning tea – fruit, coffee, vanilla cake and chocolate cake, and later a spot of lunch – rice, pasta, a chicken dish, a beef dish (when someone asked for more details, the server shrugged in an apathetic manner), and some salad. This satisfied the bulk of the passengers, and got them through the leisurely 5 hour journey to the ‘half way point’ through the canal. From there we were all bussed back to our hotels in the city.
Dinner that evening was at one of the fanciest restaurants in Panama – Madrigal. Against all wisdom and better judgement, we joined our friends in partaking in the tasting menu – 5 vegetarian courses that were pretty much all carbs. Absolutely delicious, but a mammoth effort! They then threw in TWO extra desserts to share amongst the four of us, AND ‘comped’ us on some petit fours and baby short breads. Great hosting!!
Another early morning start the next day – the price you pay when you want to cram a lot into a small amount of time in a new city. Still no decent breakfast to be had on our second early morning rise. Just as the facilities are new, so too do the staff seem ‘new’ to the industry. While they are eager to please and present well, there are quite a few in need of much closer supervision and training to get all areas of service to that of a 5 star hotel. Breakfast was a particular challenge for those on duty – the buffet was never ready at 7am (as we were told it would be) and when finally opened, freshly cooked items were placed in cold bain maries and the burners left unlit. The fact that this continued each morning, even after comments from guests, was disappointing.
So, after another breakfast of cold eggs we were collected by the owner of tour company Barefoot Panama, Kevin O’Brien, and had the best day. This guy is the perfect guide: knowledgeable, organised, funny, smart, has stories, has opinions, and is brutally honest about the country. He has spent most of his life as a tour guide in various parts of the world, and his experience and ease with people made for an informative and engaging day. He took excellent care of his group, ensured we ate at a restaurant that catered to all our needs (including us vegetarians), and allowed the perfect amount of time at each site.
This tour of Panama City included a visit to Miraflores Locks to watch the ships go through the canal, which was a lovely bonus after our cruise yesterday. It was great to see it all from the very different perspective of the viewing platform at Miraflores, rather than aboard the ferry. Kevin timed our visit here perfectly, we arrived when it was just opening, so we headed straight to the top of the building to the viewing platform and grabbed a prime position for all that was unfolding below us. As it takes a significant amount of time for a ship to pass through the series of locks, we were glad we saw a beast worthy of a few gasps – a huge container ship (a panamax) that only had 2 ft either side for clearance of the lock walls. It really was a delicate operation. No wonder they have specific captains licensed to pilot vessels through this wondrous piece of ingenuity and engineering.
The buildings at Miraflores Locks are also home to a very modern and high quality museum and a large screening room where we watched a 10 minute film on the building of the canal. Have to love a succinct doco that answers the viewers’ questions in a timely manner without boring them.
A drive to the top of Ancon Hill provided fantastic views of Panama City, with the gigantic forest of cranes dominating the picture to the east. The skyscrapers are emerging from the landscape at a cracking pace. Because it was under US jurisdiction for much of the 20th century, Ancon Hill remained a wilderness area (and now has protected status).
The focus of the afternoon was the old town – Casco Viejo. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is intimate and full of charm. Unfortunately, our exploration of it had only just begun when the heavens opened and we all ran to an ice cream shop to escape the downpour. The weather was fairly relentless, so we finished our ‘walking tour’ in the van! It’s only been in recent years that this colonial district has begun to be restored to its former beauty.
Dinner that evening was at Las Clementinas, with plenty of vegetarian options in a small garden area out the back. We started with a pepper and hummus dip with bread, a spinach, roasted pepper and lentil salad with citrus vinagriette, followed by a sweet fried plantain and brie with a raspberry sauce, and a quinoa and roast vegetable dish with a madras infused yogurt dressing. Delicious. It’s a shame that the service did not match the food – everything was done without a smile accompanied with a touch of ‘surl’, and all of our ‘gracias’ were completely ignored. But our Christmas Eve was not sullied too much by our less than enthusiastic or friendly waiters. We left without dessert and enjoyed a stroll through the old streets, wending our way to Plaza de la Independence where we found a bar with tables on the square. Our drinks were accompanied by the laughter of children, running around lighting crackers and riding their new bikes, and celebratory music blaring from windows above. But unlike the kids, we ran out of stamina and headed back to the hotel before midnight.