Getting To Panama City
After my awesome Mountain Adventures in Costa Rica I’d gotten myself on a direct bus from the Costa Rican capital of San Jose to the Panamanian capital of Panama City. It was a very long drive. About 16 hours, mostly along the Pacific coastline. I gotta say I was tired of sitting down and ready to party in Panama City! Or sleep in Panama City.
I got into Panama City at about 3am and found my way to a hostel. They couldn’t check me in, but said I could sleep on a very comfortable looking couch in the meantime. Anything that didn’t involve sitting down was quite enticing for me at that point. So I took up residence on said couch and was snoozing a few seconds later. After a few hours sleep on the couch, the staff gave me a bed in a room. Then they said I wouldn’t have to pay for the first night’s accommodation. Sweet.
Casco Viejo – Old Town
My accommodation was in the old town, so I’m sure you can guess what I did. Explored the old town, of course! The old town is also known as Casco Viejo, which is Spanish for Old Quarter. Not only was it granted world heritage status by UNESCO in 1997 but it’s also home to some of Panama City’s best nightlife. This was very evident around Christmas time, when the party people took to the streets at night.
Casco Viejo was surprisingly quiet during the day though. At times it felt like you were the only one in the area. There were also some parts of it that were a bit gritty. Several buildings had fallen into disrepair, despite the UNESCO listing, and it didn’t seem like any attempt was being made to fix them. For me, this just added to Casco Viejo’s appeal.
In stark contrast, just a few hundred metres away, one of the town’s major sites, Catedral Metropitana in Plaza de la Independencia was under reconstruction. Strangely, I didn’t hear any construction noises, nor see any workers near there during my stay. I guess they must’ve had time off for the Christmas holiday.
There were also a few green areas in the town, which made it super lovely and relaxing. It was such a pleasure to walk around Casco Viejo. At times it even felt like you’d walked into another century.
See the New From the Old
The town is rather tiny and very easy to navigate, although the narrow streets can be a bit disorienting to begin with. One of the most awesome things about Casco Viejo is that it isn’t very far from Panama City’s super modern skyline.
As a defensive measure, the town was built on a peninsula. Obviously, there’s no need for it to be defensible these days. But the design means that a short walk from almost anywhere in the old town will get you to a beautiful foreshore. On that foreshore is the Matasnillo River, which separates Casco Viejo from Panama City. The river is 12km long.
From the heart of old Panama, you can peer across the water into the heart of modern Panama City. It looks beautiful.
Party in Panama City – Casco Viejo at Night
As lovely as it was during the day, the old town changed its tone at night. No longer were you walking along almost deserted streets. The narrow streets of the old town came alive at night. They were full of lights from restaurants and cocktail bars that weren’t visible during the day. Full of cheery chatter from many people that seemingly came out of nowhere to enjoy some drinks. Nighttime was the time to party in Panama City!
The atmosphere was quite jovial, possibly due to it being the festive time of year. That was before the fireworks. The main fireworks display, which I presume was put on by the city, was followed by more fireworks. This time smaller ones that looked like they were coming from nearby rooftops. They seemed to spur people in the streets to start dancing, as the music got louder so it could be heard over the intermittent fireworks.
Panamanians really know how to party! I didn’t want to be the weird tourist that just stood there watching. So I befriended some locals and joined in. Firecrackers may have been handed to me, to set off in unison with others. I may or may not have set them off while laughing uncontrollably. You’ll never know.
Party in Panama City – The Panama Canal
What trip to Panama would be complete without a visit to Panama’s most famous and one of the world’s most ambitious engineering projects? The Panama Canal or Canal de Panamá is a marvel of not so modern engineering. It’s amazing to think that it was put into operation in 1914 and the original lock gates are still in use.
Why Make a Canal?
In short, the canal was constructed to reduce maritime transits between the Pacific and Altantic Oceans. The journey through the 82km canal takes nearly 12 hours. The alternative route, would take ships around the entire South American continent. That journey also includes traversing the treacherous Cape Horn and could take several weeks. Even with tolls that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, the canal proves to be more cost-effective for most cargo and cruise companies.
What Happens in the Canal?
A series of 6 canal locks are used to raise ships the 26m required to sail through the artificial Gatun Lake, then lower them back down to sea level at the other end. The Gatun Locks raise/lower ships on the Atlantic side and the Minaflores Locks raise/lower ships on the Pacific side. While that may all sound rather boring, seeing it in action is slightly more interesting.
Obviously, Panama City is on the Pacific side of Panama and I therefore visited the Minaflores Locks. The most interesting thing I learnt there was that a man paid a 36 cent toll to swim the Panama Canal in 1928. These days the toll can run into the $100,000s, depending on the size and weight of the vessel.
The Party’s Over
They say all good things must come to an end. This is the unfortuante thing about travelling. Sometimes you need to leave a place before you’re ready. This was the case with Panama. The people and the sights had been beautiful, but I was quickly running out of holiday time.
Keep an eye out for my next post on my adventures in Colombia!