Sunday, January 3, 2010

PANAMA CITY (2007)


Both Panama and Peru are famous for their natural diversity, animal reserves, and remote jungle parks. We avoided all that and stuck to the cities—Nick likes his trees surrounded by concrete and I like my nature best on the Discovery Channel.

Our flight on Copa Airlines allowed a free stopover in PANAMA CITY, so why not?

Now we can say we have seen the Panama Canal (at least one lock of it). We arrived around noon an immediately set out for a walk—within 20 minutes the skies had opened and we were stranded in a hotel lobby until saved by a jolly cabdriver—he had worked in Mexico for years and loved it. The ride was a bit scary as he had no windshield wipers and I could see about 5 feet ahead in the downpour. We made it safely to the Central Fish Market where we had an excellent meal. Then off to the Casco Viejo, the old part of town, which reminded me of Havana—funky, run down, a few new hotels and restaurants, lots of locals selling tourist souvenirs. There were charming plazas with old churches, houses with wooden balconies overlooking the streets, and cute policemen who came up to us to chat. We loved it. The mix of funky and fancy is just right now, but there is a lot of development and re-hab of old buildings going on--I can imagine in a few years it might look like a theme park. We were severely warned not to venture down a few streets—thieves everywhere, we were told. We obeyed. There was a run-down but interesting Barrio Chino nearby (not even mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide!), complete with delicious dim-sum.

The Panama Canal Museum on the main plaza is worth visiting. We had a good lunch in an old neighborhood place that looked like the 1930’s called the Caf√© Coca-Cola on Avenida Central.

We rode out to the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal for a look, and were glad we did. Although not that much to see, it’s a lot to think about—truly one of the man-made wonders of the world.

The other area of Panama City that was interesting was La Exposici√≥n, another funky area of shops and street stalls with a lively, Caribbean feel . The rest of the city is very Americanized and feels like Florida or California, but a bit messier—and with gambling casinos.

We stayed in the El Cangrejo district, which had been recommended as the safe, clean (read boring) place to stay at the Hotel Marbella. It sounded like the best bet in our price range ($50) but was just OK

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A journalist friend recommends the DeVille Hotel (www.devillehotel.com.pa) which gets a star from Lonely Planet ($155). We ate at the restaurant, Diez Platos, a fancy-pants fusion kind of place. It made me sick.


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