Greetings again from Panama City.
We’re now staying in Casco Viejo (Panama’s old city), at the Hostel Panamericana. Our room sits on the third floor and has a balcony that overlooks a playground where kids have been playing soccer for the past four hours. It’s not surprising to see kids play soccer in Latin America. What is surprising is the level of skill on display. At least a third of the players are barefoot, and the level of control they show—passing, heading, switching off on defense, executing set plays—would delight any American high school coach. And I doubt if half of them are high school age.
Night soccer in Casco Viejo.
We checked in this morning (Day 3) after a full day of rest yesterday. Corrinne developed a cough and a slight fever, thanks to the combination of a long flight and an inability to sleep in our first room at our first hostel (no a/c, and we haven’t adjusted yet). She’s significantly better today, but we’re playing it safe . Taking it easy, forcing fluids, and eating small portions until we’re sure she’s a hundred percent. We’re taking a seven-hour bus ride on Tuesday, so getting healthy by then is paramount.
Today was a very fine day, however. After checking into the hostel, we found a little coffee shop near the ruins of the Antiguo Club Union, which was Manuel Noriega’s old hangout before he got tossed in the slammer. The seawall offers excellent views of the downtown skyline, which several locals referred to as “Miami.”
Downtown Panama City as Noriega would have seen it.
Casco Antiguo is still home to the Presidential Palace, even though the area was in heavy disrepair just over a decade ago. UNESCO is now spearheading a massive rebuilding effort, and Casco Viejo is not a major tourist attraction. Heading further down the point, you walk past multiple vendors along the Promenade Esteban Huertas, which sits atop the old dungeons where political prisoners were tortured (Las Bovedas). From there, you drop down into the Plaza Francia (home to the French Embassy), which was built to honor France’s unsuccessful attempt to build the Panama Canal. The attempt was made in the 1880’s, and was led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who developed a little something called the Suez Canal, and later formally presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States.
This guy got a lot done.
While we were standing in the Plaza Francia, a man approached and began speaking to us in good Spanish and broken English, telling us some history about plaza and the embassy, while we responded with good English and broken Spanish. We managed to get along just fine in this fashion, and the man introduced himself as Julio and began taking us on a two-hour tour of the area, which included a visit to the Catedral Metropolitana during Mass.
Julio leading us to the Cathedral.
You can see from the picture that this is no ordinary church. The facade is built from the stones of the original city, which was burned to the ground during a sacking by Henry Morgan. The towers on either side are inlaid with Mother of Pearl. We entered and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible while the Mass progressed. As a result, I didn’t get any photos of the inside of the church, but it’s even more impressive than the outside. Particularly one little alcove in the back, where, in a glass case behind protective bars, sit the remains of Saint Aurelio da Vinalesa and Saint Getulia. Their actual remains. Including the skulls. On display.
I mentioned to Julio that there seemed to be a lot of similarities between Casco Viejo and the Vieux Carre, otherwise known as the French Quarter in New Orleans. Julio nodded, then politely pointed out that, while the areas may bear a resemblance, it was important not to mix the history of one town with another. Panama City’s story is its own, and it’s a fascinating one: from being destroyed by pirates, to destruction by fire and earthquake, to becoming a boomtown for those on the way to the California gold rush, to being the flashpoint for the greatest engineering feat in human history, to its push and pull status today as the most cosmopolitan town in Central America.
When I lived in New Orleans, I frequently gave tours of the French Quarter to people after striking up a conversation, just because I felt like it. I love the city and I wanted other people to love it as much as I do. I never asked for money, though people often insisted on handing it to me. Julio did the same. When asked if he wanted payment, he simply left it up to us to decide. He loves his city. His loves his neighborhood. He wanted us to love it too. And we did.
The rest of the day was rest. A brief excursion for dinner and dessert, but mostly healing up and preparing for New Year’s Eve. The day is winding down now, and the kids are still playing soccer in the street below. Tomorrow, we’re going to try and see the Panama Canal, then be up on the roof of our hostel for the fireworks to bring in the new year.
Updates to follow.