. Seeing the executive hotels made me think of "my former life" last year (and many years previously) when I was travelling with work and used to stay in those sorts of places at a cost of around 2-3 weeks acommodation in the places I´m staying now :) Its really good to have experienced life on both sides of the fence and there are pluses and minuses to both experiences - looking forward to hopefully switching back to the creature comforts of my old world in the not too distant future ... but not just yet , I´m still having too much fun travelling and slumming it in dorms this year :) The owner of the hostel was an interesting character - Zuly is a Panamanian lady in her twenties who jacked in a corporate job to start the hostel a few years ago .... she´s quite a mix of friendly & fierce (guess you have to be to put up with backpackers all the time) in equal doses She came out to a club with a load of us from the hostel on the Friday night and left her sister in charge of the hostel - there weren´t actually that many guests left to oversee as most were out with our large group. I think she rather enjoyed herself as she´s usually always so busy with the 24/7 lifestyle of running the hostel she doesnt get the chance to go out that often. Spent my first day in Panama City walking large distances around the city as I like to do in order to orientate myself & get a feel for the place. There is basically one long main street which I walked along - Avenida Central / Via Espana - which runs right through Panama City and is a representation of the city itself , starting with modern shopping malls , hotels & skyscrapers , going through less & less posh but still busy shops & commercial areas , a more "Central American" area Calidonia
and then finally down into the Old Town and the edge of the peninsular
. I spent most of the day in the Old Town , however , which has the most sights to see and is known as both Casco Viejo or San Felipe. The Old Town was neglected & decaying for many years but in the early 90s the local authorities started some restoration projects local commerce & business started to move back in and today it´s still a mix of pretty / restored and crumbling / unrestored buildings. There are clearly plenty of development opportunities here as more locals and tourists are attracted to the area and I reckon , whilst it wont change overnight , in several years time the area will be significantly further restored. There are really five main plazas which are the key points of interest in the old town. Plaza Santa Ana is at the border of the old town and a pedestrianised shopping area along Avenida Central , has a nice little church and is apparently a centre for political meetings & gatherings. Plaza Independencia has the large cathedral , the Canal Museum (formerly the Grand Hotel and the Post Office) and the Municipal Palace (Town Hall). Plaza Herrera has rather decaying buildings all round and looks to be a prime site for some redevelopment - there is one crumbling part of the old fortification wall and a wooden house shaped like a boat.
Plaza Bolivar is very nice with the Bolivar statue in the middle , churches of San Francisco and San Felipe Neri , the National Theatre and the former Colombia Hotel. Quite near to Plaza Bolivar , overlooking the Bay of Panama is the splendid house where the President of Panama lives - two policemen were very keen to search my day-sack before I was allowed to walk past - obviously a highly dodgy looking character. Finally there is Plaza Francia which is right down in the far corner of the Old Town on the seafront. Its basically a commemoration of French involvement in the building of the canal (which was actually a failure ! ... but more on the canal history later) and the French refused to move their embassy from the area even when it was neglected
. There is an obelisk with the cockerel on top aswell as the embassy building and a number of statues and plaques celebrating French involvement in the first canal efforts. There is also the National Culture Institute and a row of vaults ("Las Bovedas") built into the seawall which are restaurants & art galleries today but used to be dungeons. Its a nice walk up above Plaza Francia onto a little promenade which offers great views across the Bay of Panama to the modern end of town with all its skyscrapers , half of which seem to be unfinished - Panama City seems to be very much a work in progress city. On Friday I went out to the canal zone (I will write a separate blog entry on the canal as I have rather a lot to say). Then on my last full day in Panama City I really mixed up the old and the new - by spending the morning at Panama Viejo and then the afternoon in an enormous modern shopping centre that wouldn´t look out of place in any big US city. Panama Viejo (Old Panama) is about 6-7 km from modern day Panama City and was the original site of the old Panama City before it was looted & destroyed by Henry Morgan , a Welsh buccaneer who was famous for attacking the Spanish in the Caribbean/Latin America in the late 17th century. Many of the buildings are really just ruins but there are some interesting recognisable structures , with pride of place going to the cathedral with it´s impressive tower - it has four floors and you can climb up to the top for some great views over Panama Viejo , the modern Panama City and the roadbridge across the causeway with boats queuing for the canal in the distance. There are numerous other ruins of buildings which you can wander around such as churches , convents , a bishops house and a former hospital. It was my first day in Panama City where there was hardly a cloud in the sky and it wasn´t actually pelting with rain - the upshot meaning it was absolutely scorching and my T-shirt was permanently drenched with sweat as if I´d been in the pool ..
. yuk. Eventually after a couple of hours or so wandering around the ruins the heat was actually stopping me enjoying wandering so I hopped on a nearby bus and retreated to the joyous air conditioning of a huge shopping mall for some lunch and some window shopping (OK so I did splurge on a couple of new cheapo T-shirts ... some of my clothes are looking rather worse for wear after 5 months on the road and some have disintegrated & been thrown away already !). Enjoyed a couple of good nights out during my time in the city aswell - visiting a bar/club in the Old Town and an open air party / beer promotion in the square next to the cathedral ... it was nearly all locals except our group from Zulys hostel - they were very much in the party mode taking full advantage of the 50p beers and really friendly so it was a fun night. Overall Panama City has been great and I´m glad I spent time here - indeed overall Panama has been surprisingly good , I was kind of expecting to whizz through in a few days , see the canal and then go onwards but it has plenty of attractions in its own right and I will actually stay in Panama for over two weeks. Next stop is to head north via Colon (the city at the other end of the canal) to the caribbean coast in search of a sailing boat to take me to Colombia.
I enjoyed three days in Panama City checking out the city and the canal area. It´s a very interesting mix of US-style modern skyscraper-ville , colonial architecture in various states of repair in the Old Town and rather grotty Central American inner city in other areas. It´s so hot & humid that you are sweating buckets virtually the whole time , even when it pelts down with rain (which is every day this time of year) its still sticky. It was a long bus ride from Boquete to get to the capital even though Panama is a relatively small country - I left just after 7am and didnt arrive until 6pm. Found a cheap hotel (possibly the dingiest , darkest hotel in the world ... but it was cheap and for one night only) with a plan to searching for a hostel the following day as I hadn´t got myself organised with a hostel plan in advance. Just had some food washed down with a treat (glass of vino tinto) and crashed out early. On Thursday I found a decent hostel , Zulys , at the modern end of town near the big banks , skyscraper apartments and executive hotels like the enormous Marriott