Love Affair with Everywhere--Panama

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Flag of Panama  ,
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Panama was a really great surprise. This is the reason it is best to travel and experience life with no expectations.

Coming here, I didn't really know what to expect--since I still don't know why I felt the urge to visit Panama in the first place. It was more like, hmm, there's a long weekend and for once I don't have a wedding to go to, so what to do? Four days, where can I go? Looked at a map and bam, PANAMA!

Checked Delta (of course), found a good fare. Asked some friends, they said yes. What else do I need? Time, a way to get there, a place to stay and good friends....lets go!

We arrived on Thursday night. We heard from some people that Beirut was a pretty good place to grab dinner and start the night over a couple beers, shisha and an overall good atmosphere. Dince it was right across the street, we dropped our bags and headed over. Little did we realize that this would be the 1st of about 7 visits there over the 4 days.

"Un arguile (shisha) Beirut (large one) de mentha-limon y tres Panama (local beer), por favor"

I can't remember how many times we said that over those days...:))

On that note, there are four local beers to try: Panama (the best one in my opinion), Atlas (also nice), Balboa (darker) and Soberana (too light, not a fan).

And so we start, Friday, our first real day. Since it is hurricane season and Alex was causing trouble, the first couple hours were a bit rainy, but nothing we couldn't handle.

We started off on foot (the locals definitely thought we were weird when we asked if we can WALK to the canal)....since we couldn't do that we decided to walk up Avenida Balboa (waterfront walkway) and over to Casco Viejo.

I will take this moment to explain that there are 3 major areas of Panama City...panama moderna, casco viejo and panama viejo (old panama).

So we walked up Balboa, passed the largest fish market and were heading into casco viejo...and we had to stop...we were getting some interesting looks and though the policeman standing at the entrance didn't warn us, we did ask a woman walking near us how to get INto the part of CV we were trying to find. She kindly informed us that this particular part was dangerous for us and that we should get a cab. (we found out later why, but that story is coming)

Sensing her sincerity and geniune concern for our safely, we walked back out and hailed a cab. A nice guy name Jorge dropped us at the Cathedral in CV. He was awesome...he took us on a tour by car to show us what we should see and then took us back to the cathedral because we preferred to navigate by foot. He told us the 'safe' areas and said we should stay in that area--we listened.

He told us all about the area and we decided that we should see if he would just wait for us and then take us to the canal. Lucky for us, he agreed! Jorge is the best driver/tour guide in Panama!!!!! We felt very safe with him leading us. If anyone is traveling there and speaks even a little Spanish (and understands most of it) then I would recommend giving him a call--I have his number and will be glad to pass it on. As most of you reading know, I can't stand typical tours/guides, etc, so this turned out to be perfect!! He is a local, and told us stories of the old days, gave us a history lesson and took us to parts of town we wouldn't find in a (blah) lonely planet!

So in CV we found beautiful architecture, the French Embassy and the entrance to the President's office(s). From the overlook near the French Embassy we could see Panama Moderna to the left and the ships waiting to enter the canal to the right. Pretty cool.

As we were leaving casco and heading out of the area, he explained the area we were in earlier as Chorillos--Noriega's old hood. And NO, not Nori the rapper, but the old Panamanian dictator/druglord. Guess it's probably smart we listened to the nice lady and didn't keep wandering alone. Was very interesting to hear the stories of the US invasion of '89 (from the perspective of a local) and what that meant for the people of Panama---the good and bad effect.

From there we went to a viewing point across the Puente de Las Americas (Bridge of the Americas) to where we had an awesome view of the bridge as well as the docks (where carpet arrives:)) and the ships heading into the Canal.

Next stop was the Causeway--very cool area that connects 3 islands--full of bars and restaurants. At the entrance is Zona Viva--a compound of clubs! House music galore!

At this point, we decided that we should head straight to the canal so we could make sure we finished that at least. From the Miraflores docks you can see ships entering from the Pacific and heading through the Canal to end up in the Atlantic--it is the only place that this can happen unless you go all the way down to Cape Horn. It takes about 8 hours to cross the canal if you are interested in taking a boat through. It was amazing to watch the canal in action....while a tourist attraction to us, this is the daily life of the import/export trade business.

That night we headed over to Habibi's, a Lebanese (yummy!) restaurant and then to Calle Uruguay, a street of bars, lounges and clubs. Great nightlife in Panama--wide mix of music--from electronic and house to hip hop to salsa...great vibes and fun crowd til the late hours of the morning.

Here, I will tell you...if you are drinking anything other than beer, do bottle service. It is insanely cheap!

Saturday we decided we would call Jorge again to have him take us to some of the other places he had mentioned the day before. Oh, and another reason panama is great, is that the later you leave the better, so no early mornings for us! We headed out around 2 pm and made our way to Panama Viejo, which is the oldest city in Panama. This is the city the Spaniards invaded many years ago.

Sunday, we headed up to the highest point in Panama city---the views from there were just incredible. On one side we could see the entrance of the canal, the puente, the Miraflores locks and beyond and on the other we could see Panama Moderna as it linked to Casco Viejo. We got really lucky with a cloudless, sunny day!

One part of it is blocked off because tourist's can't behave and abuse the grounds, but if you ask the guard nicely and you treat the area with respect, he will likely open the gates for you to go up for an even better view. Don't forget to tip him on the way down--he won't ask, but he'll appreciate it--water is also welcome. It was winter and we were melting in our dresses---imagine him in his guard uniform in that heat--in the summer!

The rest of the day we spent out on the Causeway....

The one thing I really loved about Panama, other than its beauty, its cleanliness, the history and people, was the fact that there weren't a ton of tourists and that the locals did not 'cater' to us. We were spoken to in Spanish, left to our own business and had a really great experience.

I can keep going, but I think I have covered most of the important sights of Panama.

A big thanks to PK and JR for joining me on this adventure and to RV for the suggestions!

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