The rain poured heavy as our plane made its way to the gate at Tocument International Airport. I arrived at the tail end of the rainy season, or so I hoped.
Because of Spain's Independence Day observance, the ride to the hotel took an hour longer than the usual half hour. I was to say three nights at the El Panama Hotel. I used the Internet ($1.00 U.S. for half an hour), found somewhere cheaper down the street. The computers weren’t the greatest, sticky keys, but hey, for a penny a minute, the server was quick
As I didn’t have much time, I hired, Jamie, a taxi driver from the hotel. He took me where most tour buses don’t go. I loved looking at gorgeous homes in well-to-do areas, although I saw a lot of for sale signs. Jamie asked if I wanted to buy one. Yeah, loved to if I had the cash. Get away from the cold winters. Uh, snap out of the dream.
Panama City is not without poor sections, but it is beginning to look like a concrete jungle. We drove by a neighbourhood preparing to move, their homes will make way for condominiums, as if they need more.
At Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a 1924 statue that stands on a white globe held by four individuals of different races, Jamie pointed to the clutter of tall buildings across the water, “Little Manhattan” then moved his hand to the left, “Those two buildings are called ‘Twin Towers'" (I got goose bumps).
Due to the holiday, I wasn’t able to walk much of the grounds at Panama Viejo, founded on August 15, 1519, burned down during a 1671 battle. When I went towards one of the walls of the main attraction, Nuesta Senora de la Asuncion Cathedral (1519-1626), the alarm went off. Needless to say, I was embarrassed. What was there to protect?
Casco Viejo is a beautiful old part of the city. I strolled along cobblestone streets among the colonial architecture. Wrought iron balconies were adorned with colourful flowers. One balcony had a leg sticking out between the plants. Jamie said it was meant as a joke, a dummy’s leg – humourous and worth a picture.
I walked along Paseo las Bovedas (Promenade of Vaults), the seawall built by the Spaniards to protect the city, a good place to view ships lining up to enter the canal. There were a few vendors, blankets on the ground, souveniers for selling.
At Plaza Independencia is Plaza Cathedral started in 1688, which took 100 years to complete. The center portion was built using stones from the former church, Convento de la Merced in Panama Viejo. The towers on the end are white, legend has it that the distinct sound of the bells come from the ring that was thrown in the molten metal by Isabella of Portugal.
A word of caution. Walking in Caso Viejo is not recommended after dark. Be careful during the day too. Avoid wearing flashing jewelry, keep camera hidden and don’t show wads of money. Wear something with pockets, so you can store a small amount of needed cash. Hide a little pouch underneath your shirt, if you need extra. Out of sight, out of mind.
Situated on Via Espana and Avenida Federico Loyd, a short distance from my hotel, is Iglesia del Carmen. Built in 1947, the cream coloured neo-Gothic cathedral has two, wedding-cake tall towers.
The scenic drive down Pan American Highway (if you stay on it, you'll get to the United States) took two hours to El Valle de Anton. El Valle is in the crater of a dormant volcano, the largest in Central America.
The first stop was El Nispero. This small zoo has a wide variety of monkeys, pheasants, exotic birds and endangered tigers. The golden frogs are the top attraction. There are plenty of plants and flowers to admire too.
I stood under the shelter watching the rain pound as mud was drying on my face at Aguas Termales (Spring water). The tour guide said we could not walk to the waterfall because it was too dangerous. The week before, heavy rains caused the river to overflow knocking down trees, noticeable upon entry to the grounds. The mud dried, I splashed warm thermal water on my face. It felt smooth after a while.
I spent four nights at Playa Blanca Resort, about a two-hour drive from Panama City. This resort opened in 2003. It has 219 rooms in buildings painted white with blue trimmings. There are a few homes and condominiums for purchase and/or rent. The resort will expand with a lagoon and maybe a marina. The sand on the beach is brown, there are several cracked lounge chairs, slow internet connection costs $3.00 U.S. for half an hour (keys stick). On my last two nights, I chose to make reservations at the restaurant by the beach, the atmosphere was nicer and quieter, plus I enjoyed (even though it was dark), staring out toward the ocean. Nightly entertainment is the usual resort-type. The staff did a good job considering they had other duties. When do they practice? It wasn't cheap, at $50.00 U.S. dollars, but the massage was excellent.
Weather was hot (no complaints). The clouds were a relief since the sun was already powerful at nine in the morning.