Old Panama, New Panama, and Bread

When you hear “Panama,” you probably instantly think “canal.” That’s fair. It is a good association. I guess you could also go with hat. We did see a lot of dorky people rocking the straight-outta-the-store-Panama hats while we were there. But, there is more to Panama than just the enormous ditch that cuts through its waistline and a rather dated fashion choice. We only spent a few short days in Panama, but I feel like we found some places we would definitely go back and explore again.

Casco Viejo, the old town, was beautiful. It is filled with super narrow one-way streets that are edged with old building facades of a colonial style- tall and narrow, wooden shutters, bright colors, cast iron railings, etc. It’s not a great place to explore via car, as it doesn’t take much to snare up traffic in that one-way grid, but on foot it is perfect. With no real destination in mind, other than Casco Viejo, we hopped in an Uber after our visit to Miraflores Locks and headed into town. Our driver was young and super chatty (lots of thoughts on Venezuela!) and wound up through the snaking streets of the old town to drop us off in the heart of the action. After pointing out a few good lunch options, he sent us on our way to wander the streets for the afternoon. (Casco Viejo is edged by some neighborhoods that are slightly less than tourist-friendly, so it is probably best for daytime exploration.) We ended up in a little Panamanian pub where Thad had the first of many bowls of ceviche and I had a less-than-stellar hamburger (too much random filler in the meat), but my poor lunch choice was overshadowed by the great venue. We enjoyed a bit of shade and cool air and some icy drinks before heading back into the labyrinth that awaited us outside. Casco Viejo has lots of restaurants, a few small museums, and an outdoor market in a central plaza. After traipsing about for a while, we decided it was again time to beat the heat, this time with popsicles! Popsicles seem to be a “thing” in Panama; we saw several different chains that sold nothing but ice cream on a stick, all with increasing levels of complication and sophistication. Popsicles are not just for children, my friends! Thad went with the “American” flavor, which was peanut butter dipped in chocolate and I went with mango, a flavor option that seemed more refreshing in the hot afternoon sun. I supposed tackling Casco Viejo with a map or a plan might lead to more specific sightseeing, but our unplanned strolls through the various narrow streets was a great way to whittle away an afternoon.

As much as I like to get off the beaten path and explore new places, I am also a sucker for a total-tourist shtick. Boardwalks with their Ye Old Fudge shops draw me in every time. I can’t pass up an opportunity to wander through a souvenir store (although I rarely buy anything). And if there is a chance to touch something weird or ride something crazy, I’ll stand in that line longer than a more sane human would. The Amador Causeway in Panama City gave me just the tourist fix I was looking for. We took an Uber (so cheap and easy, a luxury we do not have in Caracas) to the end of the Causeway and then the plan was to walk back to the mainland. (The Amador Causeway connects a series of islands to the mainland via a narrow spit of land built up to hold the road. At points it is only as wide as the road and sidewalks on each edge and at other points it hits the small islands and has shops and restaurants.) We hopped out of our car at the end and found a restaurant that sat above the water with a small boat marina attached. Lunch was massive shrimp skewers for Thad and a weirdly textured chicken breast for me. (I apparently made terrible food choices the entire weekend.) As we walked out of the restaurant, headed for the Causeway, I spotted an option that beckoned. Pedal carts! (I actually had to Google what these things might be called. I started with bike-carts and went to umbrella-bikes before figuring they probably had an actual name.)

Pedal carts are awesomely touristy!

The one we rented was a bike built for two, although there were options for four-seaters. We paid our nominal fee and made sure we were hiring it for a one-way trip, sorting out where to deliver it back on the land-side of the Causeway and then we were off! I’m pretty sure we made about a foot of progress for every fifteen cycles of the pedals, but we weren’t in it to win the Tour de Panama, but rather for the sightseeing, so our slow pace let us intimately examine every pelican we passed! There were faster ways to get back to the city. And there were easier ways to get back to the city. But there were no more fashionable ways to get back to the city!

Sadly, ranking right up with these previous two adventures, was our trip to Riba Smith, a local grocery store chain. We purposefully packed light when it came to our bags on the way into Panama in hopes of doing a bit of shopping to supplement our cupboards while we were in the country. We were not disappointed! Riba Smith would be a normal grocery store in the United States, but after just a month in Venezuela, it was Shangri-La. There was an entire aisle dedicated to bread. Sandwich loaves. Rolls. Baguettes. White. Wheat. Multi-grain. The choices were vast and glorious. We walked up and down every single aisle of the store, getting an array of random things that are either unavailable in Caracas or ones that caught our eye because they screamed of home. At the end, we did some slight damage to our credit card (not really a problem since it is nearly impossible to spend money in Venezuela) and came out with enough bags to fill up every inch of baggage space we had available. (Also, we looked like slightly crazy tourists walking back into the fancy hotel lobby, hauling plastic bags of food. Just smile and keep walking.)

Panama was just a short trip to get out of town for a bit, but ended up being a lot of fun and definitely somewhere that I am sure we are going to end up again (and maybe again) over our two years in Venezuela. Who can argue with direct flights to a land of bread-aisles?

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Photo credit: T. Ross

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