To make my writing go a little easier, I have copied some excerpts from the Lonely Planet – Panamá chapter on Panamá City:
“The most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, Panama City is both a gateway to the country’s natural riches and a vibrant destination in its own right. A hub of international banking and trade, the city sports a sultry skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers reminiscent of Miami.
The capital rides the rails of urban chaos, with no shortage of traffic jams, wayward taxis, and casinos stacked sideways between chic clubs and construction sites. As a respite from all that buzz, is the colonial neighborhood of Casco Viejo - a dilapidated peninsula with ruins and cobbled streets reminiscent of old Havana.
After the city elite fled to live in skyscrapers, decades passed with Casco Viejo crumbling on the edge of the sea. Recently, artists and small businesses are moving back in and renovations are abundant. With luxury lofts, cafes and the hottest nightspots arriving, the Casco is approaching full-swing revival.
With arms open to the east and the west, Panama City developed as a hub of trade and immigration. As a result, urbanites hail from every corner of Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. Increasing numbers of North Americans and Europeans are adding to the mix. The result is a cultural mix that marks this capital as more dynamic and fluid than its neighbors. An ‘anything goes’ attitude proves a breath of fresh air.
Within minutes of the city’s center are tropical rainforests and verdant parks home to howler monkeys, toucans and sloths. You can also escape the bustle by hitting a broad sandy beach (Pacific or Caribbean) or by hopping a train to Colón.
Panamá City was founded in 1519 not long after Balboa first saw the Pacific. Although the Spanish settlement quickly became an important center of government and church authority, the city was ransacked and destroyed in 1671 by the English pirate Sir Henry Morgan, leaving only the stone ruins of Panamá Viejo.
The Iglesia de San José protects the famous Altar de Oro (Golden Altar), which was about the only thing of value salvaged after Henry Morgan sacked Panamá Viejo. According to local legend, when word came of the pirate’s impending attack, a priest attempted to disguise the altar by painting it black.
The priest told Morgan that the famous altar had been stolen by another pirate, and even convinced Morgan to donate handsomely for its replacement. Morgan is said to have told the priest, ‘I don’t know why, but I think you are more of a pirate than I am.’ Whatever the truth, the baroque altar was later moved from the old city to the present site.
Three years later, the city was reestablished about 8km to the southwest in the area now known as Casco Viejo. Although the peninsular location made the city well defended, the Spanish overland trade route faded upon the destruction of the Caribbean port at Portobelo in 1746.
Panama gained independence in 1821 and became part of Gran Colombia, though a decade later the regional confederation dissolved and Panama belonged to Colombia. Panama City subsequently declined in importance, though it would return to prominence in the 1850s when the Panama Railroad was completed, and gold seekers on their way to California flooded across the isthmus by train.
Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903 and Panamá City was firmly established as the capital. Since the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, the city has emerged as a center for international business and trade.
The city’s greatest setback in recent times occurred in 1989, when it was invaded by the USA to oust dictator Manuel Noriega from power. The capital suffered damage both from the invasion itself and from the subsequent looting, and several residential blocks of the El Chorillo district were destroyed by combat- ignited fire.
Following the handover of the Panama Canal in 1999, and the subsequent closure of American military bases in the country, Panama City has finally taken charge of its own destiny.
Today, Panama City is by far the wealthiest city in Central America, and residents are optimistic about the future. With the Panama Canal expansion, the city is poised to continue its constant transformation.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We decided we wanted to rent an apartment for our three-week stay in Panama, but after searching through the offerings on AirBnb, we decided that we really didn’t want to be in the high-rise jungle of the downtown district of the capital.
We were more than a little concerned about what we’d read regarding the state of the Old Town (Casco Viejo), but felt when we found a beautiful apartment on FlipKey; we knew that’s where we wanted to stay. Our correspondence with the owner of the apartment was very positive and we learned that her husband gave small-group guided tours of the city and the outlying sights of interest to tourists.
We hired at taxi at the airport and gave him the instructions for the location of the apartment in Casco Viejo. Before we knew it, we were whizzing past the forest of skyscrapers and onto the main road that runs along the wide bay. What we hadn’t anticipated were the road closures that Sunday afternoon resulting from the preparations for the Carnival season in full swing.
The taxi had to detour through the rough neighbourhood of El Chorillo and we began to wonder what on earth we had let ourselves in for. Once we found our way into Casco Viejo, the taxi driver had to call Patty for directions to the apartment building because so many streets had been closed off in order to restore the original paving stones.
The contrast between the slums dwellings we had passed in El Chorillo, and the immaculately restored 17th century building where our Panama home was located could not have been more striking. Patty has a real flair for decorating, and the kitchen was so well stocked I would have been hard pressed to think of anything more she could have added.
I was particularly pleased that the large screen television was connected to a satellite dish and that we could access our Netflix account while in Panama. We knew we wouldn’t be roaming around much at night, and the prospect of watching several movies and taking in the Academy Awards on Oscar night made us feel right at home.
We decided that we wouldn’t look into any tours for the first week of our visit, but that we would explore the Casco Viejo district on foot in the early morning and take long walks along the waterfront in the early hours of the evening. The weather took some adjusting to, it was very hot and humid, quite a change from Arizona and Mexico in January and early February.
Just as I had hoped, my coughing settled down with the change in climate and I no longer had to take drugs every day or stay within arms reach of a box of tissues. I’m beginning to see that our choice of travel destinations will more and more depend on the climate and the time of year. As if food allergies weren’t enough, now I’ll have to take flowering plants and trees into consideration.