Travel Diary: Going “Back” to Panama City

Gazing over the dreamy Panama City skyline, with international deep house music in my ear like a heartbeat and the delicious tang of ceviche on my tongue, it became no surprise to me that my parents fell in love here. For my parents’ 28th wedding anniversary, my family and I traveled to Panama City, Panama. It was here they met all those years ago on what was formerly Howard Air Force Base. My parents thought what better way to celebrate than to go back to their beloved city, and to show my younger brother and I “where it all started.”

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I was at the Tantalo Hotel’s rooftop bar with my brother, sipping on my second Balboa, Panama’s most popular brew named after the immortalized conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa. We were both sitting in thoughtful silence, just looking over the city, whose skyline is reminiscent of that of Miami. The Balboa wasn’t my favorite flavor, but I figured, when in Panama

Atop the building, a warm breeze was liberating us from the astonishing Central American heat we’d been walking in all day. Before this trip, I thought I knew what hot was. I was wrong. The heat in Panama is unlike any I’d ever experienced during summers in Louisiana or Georgia with my grandparents. Panama heat is throat-tightening, heavy, and humid. But as much as I complained about it, I was oddly grateful of how the tropical climate cleared my skin and nourished my hair. Wobbling on my charmingly uneven barstool, I couldn’t help but reflect on my whirlwind of a trip.

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Earlier in the week, we’d visited the Panama Canal. Aside from it being nothing of how I imagined the Canal to look in my head (I was picturing a giant river in the middle of Panama City, similar to the Seine in Paris…Not sure why.), it was breathtaking and made me inexplicably emotional. From up high, we watched a cargo ship skillfully squeeze through the first lock of the Canal with as much precision as a doctor in brain surgery. Perhaps what got to me was the thought of the thousands of people who lost their lives building the canal in the name of cosmopolitanism combined with true engineering innovation.

On one day of adventure, I’d ridden in a dugout canoe up the Chagres River to spend a day in the jungle with the Embera Indians. Not only did I eat the best fresh tilapia of my life, but I also met Miguel, the shaman of the village who shared his knowledge about holistic medicine. The heat this day was sweltering, but I soon forgot about it as I was quickly enveloped in awe of the green jungle, impeccable straw huts, and impressive self-sufficiency of this remote village. The villagers, who live the same way their ancestors lived hundreds of years before, wore bright, intricately beaded garments and, to my astonishment, never seemed to sweat. It was as if I had stepped straight into a National Geographic magazine.

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After the adventures with the Embera, we choose a more relaxing activity for our next day in Panama. I spent the day hunting for sea glass and lounging on the pristine beach at Isla Grande, a small island frequented by Panama City locals. The island is a 2-hour drive and a short, slightly nerve-wracking ferry ride from the city. The pleasant laughter of families enjoying their own beach days was infectious and the warm water of the Pacific Ocean truly restorative. For someone who doesn’t consider herself a huge fan of beaches, I adored this place. The waves were soothing, the sand cool, and trees provided the perfect amount of shade. It was as if the island new exactly what to do to make us fall in love with it.

Our home for the week was a lovely apartment in Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama city. I had become somewhat familiar with the trendy area, which was bursting with spectacular dining spots, nightlife, and shopping. One favorite dining spot was The Fish Market, a food truck with a festive outdoor seating area that served killer fish tacos. Let me tell you, no taco will ever compare. Another favorite was Café Coca-Cola, the oldest café in the city, located just on the edge of Casco Viejo in an area called Central. Locals say it was a favorite dining spot of Che Guevara. This place is a must if you want large portions of good, authentic Panamanian fare for an insanely low price.

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Finally and perhaps, most meaningful to me, I visited Panama Pacifico, the super modern Special Economic Zone that is home to many multi-national corporations. This development is located on what used to be Howard Air Force Base. Though the American base hasn’t been in use since 1999, many of the original buildings are still standing. I am forever grateful that my parents were able to see where they lived, met, worked, and played before the remains are completely renovated or torn down. After all, that is “where it all started.”

Still gazing over the city from atop my charmingly uneven barstool, I couldn’t believe so much was happening in this small country I’d only ever heard reminiscent stories about. I had only been briefly immersed in this kaleidoscope of a city, colored with various cultures and a colorful colonial history, but I already knew I would have to return one day.

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Images: Aysia Woods