PANAMA CITY’S CASCO VIEJO

On another Visa Renewal trip, we found ourselves flying to Panama; the Canal, the Hats, the retried expats!

At first glance from our plane coming into Panama City we saw tall buildings, really tall buildings and lots of them. We did not make any judgments on that view as they were all clustered in one general area, an area we had not yet decided to visit. After our plane landed we went through customs fast because we carried on our luggage and were first in line. We declined the $25.00 each taxi charge for a ride to our hotel and decided to take a $1.00 2 hour bus ride like the good budget travelers that we are.

Like my motto says, “Here it is an adventure to get somewhere” we found ourselves on yet another transportation adventure. We made our way to the bus stop on the highway in front of the airport and waited in the heat for the right bus. After talking to some of the others waiting for a bus, Jim decided we could get on any bus. I followed; sometimes it is just easier to let him make his own mistakes. After 30 minutes, we did find out it was the wrong bus, (I probably said, “I told you so.”) people on the bus told us we needed the bus behind us. We jumped off the bus with luggage in hand which is not an easy task from the back of the hot crowded old school bus, then ran to the other bus behind us and fortunately, was able to squeeze our big American butts on. Then after a while a women on that bus told us we were once again on the wrong bus, we got off at the next stop, this time a bit frustrated, but fortunately we were waved back on the bus finding out that it WAS the right bus. Finally, we made it to our destination, but that was not the hotel, it was the place we were supposed to get the $2.00 taxi. We hailed down a taxi, but three old men sitting in the shade along a building yelled, “No!” Apparently, these men did not like the shirt the driver was wearing (wife beater) and said the driver would rob us. One of the old dudes went into heavy city traffic and started to hail us a taxi, letting the ones pass that he did not like the looks of until he found the right one for the right price! Yes, the people of Panama are helpful, whether they are giving the right info or not! We safely made it to our hostel in the Casco Viejo area of Panama City. Well, it was not OUR hostel because they were full, except for dormitory beds. So we went in search of a cheap private room for rent. We did not find any, so we opted to spend the night in a 6 bed dorm room at another more-quiet hostel with the promise of a private room the next night for a whopping $18.00. Oh, the money in Panama is the American dollar and although you can say, dollar, it also goes by the Balboa. The whole thing we went through to get to a hotel may sound all sweet and adventurous now as I write it, but the process of getting the right transpo and looking for a place to stay in a new city we were too lazy to book ahead of time is not a fun one for Dawn and Jim. Oh, there is bitching and moaning and hot tired cranky chicken-ness, enough for a really good episode on The Amazing Race. But low and behold, we always get to where we are going somehow, we always find a place to stay somehow and most importantly, somehow we are still married!

After resting for a bit, and apologizing profusely to each other about things said in the heat (literally) of travel, we checked out the hood and fell in love right away. As Wikipedia taught me Casco Viejo, aka, Antigua Viejo or San Felipe was the second site of Panama City, started in 1673 after Henry Morgan sacked the original city leaving it to perish by fire. The original Panama City, founded in 1519, still stands in ruins 5 miles northeast of Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo was once a grand site, but started to decline in the 1930’s when most of the city’s rich moved to the suburbs, and was left in disrepair until it became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Although many buildings are still mostly in rubble with their weathered facades still amazingly standing, some are beaten, but inhabited, some being worked on, and the others have already been beautifully renovated. Mixed amongst these buildings are museums in old yet renovated government buildings, art and craft galleries, hip lounges and modern chic restaurants. As well, there are churches from all ages, a plethora of public squares, cultural spaces, and definitely dodgier places of drink and eat to boot. One of our favorite dodgier spots was Los Banos Publicos (yes that means The Public Bathrooms) on Plaza Herrera. The location once actually being a public bathroom now is a funky and dingy club/bar hosting live music, movies and art openings. We have some of the art to prove it, drawn right there by the artist, Chin Goi, personally for Jim. The club even has its own facebook account and Jim is now a friend!

Casco Viejo a mix of everything: people; architecture; socio-economic classes; and history. There is a photo opportunity on every street; at every corner. Your eyes never rest going from one building to the next, searching over the architecture from the mid 1700’s to French persuasion to the art deco era. Since it is a Heritage site, renovation regulations must be followed. Although, from what we could see through windows, the inside of some of the renovated condo buildings were quite modern. Our favorite part of the architecture was the doorways and the iron work on balconies and above doorways. And you can tell, by all the photos we took!

Click Photo Below for Doorway Photo Album:

Panama City – Windows & Doors – March 2009

Click Photo Below for Railing Photo Album:

Panama City – Railings of Casco Viejo! – March 2009

Our next favorite in Casco Viejo was the Kuna Women. The Kuna people, from the San Blas islands, come to the big city to sell their molas in Casco Viejo to us budget travelers and to the cruise ship peeps bused in. We have never seen such a more colorful group of people in our life. Out of the seven different indigenous people of Panama, the Kuna are the most well-known, due to their traditional dress and the islands they govern being popular with some off-the-beaten-path travelers, such as ourselves.

The Kuna people are originally from what is now Columbia, but after the violent Spanish invasion they moved to the remote Darien province of Panama, slowly making their way to the Archipielago de San Blas on the Caribbean coast. According to Wikipedia, in 1925 Panama tried to suppress many of the traditional customs, but the Kuna resisted in what is now referred to as the Kuna Revolution. Kuna had sent delegations to the United States to help in resolving this conflict and Jim said he read somewhere, although I can not find it on the internet, that the U.S. sat a war ship off the coast of San Blas making it clear to the Panama officials to back off. Whether the U.S. did it or not, the Panama government did back off leaving the land with the 400 islands to be governed by the Kuna people. They still govern this area and live a very basic life in bamboo huts with palm thatched roofs, but technology has snuck in, as the use of cell phones is the best and only way of communication in these islands. The men now dress in modern clothing, paling next to their female counterparts. I wondered why the men have become more modern and not the women, is it because the men are trying to keep their women to the “old ways,” but through research I learned they are a matriarchal society. Maybe it is just out of respect to the women, but keeping up with the traditional “uniform” is not an easy task.

The very tiny petite women are covered from head to ankle, in a multitude of colors, all hand made and thoughtfully designed. The traditional corset-like mola across their mid section is always in black and every other color of the rainbow and is attached to what I think is a more modern part of their garb. It is an upper chest, shoulder and arm attachment sewn right into their mola. It made the mola more like a whole shirt. The material they use for this part does not match the mola at all and is usually of a light and floral printed variety. And the Kuna women love their trim and they use it in neon pink, green and orange. The lower half of their traditional wear is a cotton sarong, usually black or blue with a design in yellow, orange or green. I am not done, as a lover of bead work; I left my favorite part for almost last.

Their lower legs and arms are covered in beads, designed I think for their clan, and worn for two months straight at which time they make new ones. They are never without the beads on. The beads are just long strings of beads they weave together in the back. I bought an 8 layered bracelet and tried to figure out how they attached it in the back, but even after finally taking it off…I still have no idea. With their arms and legs covered in beads, you would think that would be the end of my description, but no. Their heads and always present short straight black hair are covered as well by a red scarf with yellow or orange designs. One would think that would make for enough color, some might think, way too much color, but the more traditional Kuna gals still wear their cheeks very rosy red in perfect circles with gold pinching the septum part of their nose (the gold hoop is just not as popular with the girls anymore, but you may still see it as well as gold hanging from their neck and ears). And still yet, some even have a temporary tattoo from their forehead to the bottom of their nose.

It is rude to take photos of the Kuna people, so I tried the hide the fact that I was doing so in Panama City and did not even try when we were in the San Blas islands.

Click the Photo Below for the Kuna Album:

Panama City – Kuna Women – March 2009

Next up on the tour of Casco Viejo is the Cathedrals and churches. The six churches we came across were quite impressive. Some renovated eons ago with the original stone design still showing through, some just left in rubble, some so basic on the outside we were surprised what we saw on the inside. At one point in time Panama City was a very religious city, because in the 38 square blocks that make up the area we saw at least 6 major churches, that is one church for every 6.33 blocks. One could say Casco Viejo is a religious experience! I now made up for some of the Sundays I have missed church!

Starting with Iglesia de San Jose, a plain-Jane church on the outside, so plain, we even missed it several times. But when Jim read about a golden altar, we set out to find it…right across the street from our hostel! I was thinking the gold part would be a small altar on top of a larger wooden altar, but no, the golden altar is from floor to ceiling. Remember, churches usually have high ceilings, so that is a lot of gold! And the altar does not mimic the plain design of the outside, it is intricately designed and eye inspiring. According to Epinions.com when Henry Morgan sacked the original site of Panama City in 1671, he came looking for the “Altar de Oro,” the priest had painted it black convincing the pirate that his altar was made of wood. When Morgan asked what happened to the altar, the priest again fibbed saying another pirate got to it first. And on top of all this white lying, the priest somehow even got the Privateer to donate money for a new altar! Morgan said to the priest before leaving, “I am not sure why, but Father, I think you are more of a Pirate than I!”

Another church we enjoyed is Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced, another large grand old girl, even with large knockers. Ahem, I mean really large well preserved door knockers! And the largest of them all, Catedral Metropolitana aka Iglesia Santa Maria la Antiqua is still a favorite of ours. The designers of this church were gems, literally, as they used Mother of Pearl on the upper portions of the towers outside for decorative purposes. The Mother of Pearl shines in the sun making bright reflections. Sunglasses are a necessity! The larger than life doors open up to the wonderful Plaza de Independencia with colorful trees in full bloom, and the slowly fading wood sculptures tucked into niches on the outside make this a place to see. I was so inspired by this church I bought a rosary from the gift store only to find it cheaper at an art market later that day. Even spirituality has a price!

Click Photo Below for Church Album:

Panama City – Churches – Casco Viejo – March 2009

You need to see the rest of Casco Viejo for yourself, or in our photos below. It is just a wonderful place to walk, wander, stare, have a cold beverage, enjoy a good meal, party, and dance…or maybe even live!

Click Photo Below for Casco Viejo Album:

Panama City – Casco Viejo – March 2009
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~ by HenderBalz on April 6, 2009.

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