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    Is This the Isthmus? Tour – Panama Part 1

    Sunday, July 16, 2017
    Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

    A Red Devil bus trails my taxi cab on the way from Tocumen Airport to Panama City.
    A Red Devil bus trails my taxi cab on the way from Tocumen Airport to Panama City.

    “Panama is a country in Central America. It is bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia (in South America) to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The capital and largest city is Panama City, whose metropolitan area is home to nearly half of the country’s four million people.

    “Prior to settlement by the Spanish in the 16th century, Panama was inhabited by several indigenous tribes, including the Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva. Panama broke away from Spain in 1821, and joined a union of Nueva Granada, Ecuador, and Venezuela named the Republic of Gran Colombia. When Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Panama and Nueva Granada remained joined, eventually becoming the Republic of Colombia.

    Luna's Castle in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.
    Luna’s Castle in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.

    “With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, allowing the Panama Canal to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. In 1977, an agreement was signed for the total transfer of the Canal from the United States to Panama by the end of the 20th century, which culminated on December 31, 1999.

    “Revenue from canal tolls continues to represent a significant portion of Panama’s GDP, although commerce, banking, and tourism are major and growing sectors. Since 2010, Panama remains the second most competitive economy in Latin America. In 2010, the population was 65% Mestizo (mixed white, Native American), 12.3% native American, 9.2% black or of African descent, 6.8% Mulatto, and 6.7% white. Around 75% of Panamanians are Roman Catholic, with the other major religions commanding much smaller percentages. Covering around 40 percent of its land area, Panama’s jungles are home to an abundance of tropical plants and animals – some of them to be found nowhere else on the planet.”–Wikipedia

    The Cafe Coca-Cola in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.
    The Cafe Coca-Cola in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.

    After a five-hour red eye flight from Los Angeles, California to Miami, Florida, followed by another 2.5 hour leg from Miami down to Panama City, I exited the airport in search of a ride into town, which is around 20 or so miles away. I was approached by a driver who walked me over to a plain white car with no license plates! Of course, I asked him for some form of ID to prove that he was a legit taxi. I could tell he was a tad offended. He showed me a pad of taxi receipts and a license plate that also said taxi on it.

    Against my better judgement, I heaved my backpack into the car anyway and climbed in. For some strange reason, the driver kept the license plate stored in the glove box instead of displayed on the back of the car. I asked about that, but he replied unintelligibly, so I never did learn why. Amidst a torrent of sweat running down his head, the driver said all tourist taxis are plain white, and also reassured me that people in Panama are really nice. “I’m sure that’s true, except for the criminals,” I thought.

    A magenta-sprinkled back street in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.
    A magenta-sprinkled back street in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.

    Since it was Sunday, we were blessed with extremely light traffic, with nary any slowing, which allowed us to breeze the whole way into town in a fraction of the time it would normally take any other day of the week. At one point, we encountered a couple of Red Devil buses, which are vintage school buses imported from the U.S., tricked out with exotic paint schemes and bumping sound systems before they are pressed into service on city streets.

    After I got dumped out at Luna’s Castle in the Casco Viejo neighborhood, I booked a bed in a dorm room for $14.00 per night. Seems that private rooms in Latin America start at around $30 per night, which is way too much for me. I got spoiled by paying $8.00 to $10.00 per night in Southeast Asia; it’s hard to beat that. Since I only slept maybe four hours total on my flights, I definitely needed to nap for a couple of hours.

    A chip off the old block, I mean a slice out of the old table at Pizzeria Casco in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.
    A chip off the old block, I mean a slice out of the old table at Pizzeria Casco in Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama.

    In the early evening, I headed out for a very late lunch at a super basic diner called the Cafe Coca-Cola, where Che Guevara supposedly ate. Although visually the place exudes a really down to earth ’50s vibe, the waitresses there seem quite icy toward foreigners. On the up side, I got a veggie omelet, rice, spuds and a small dish of lentil soup for only $5.50. Much warmer was the reception at Pizzeria Casco, where a few hours later, I got a couple of slices and a Coca-Cola for $5.00. This place has clever-looking round table tops with a “slice” cut out of them just like a pizza.

    P.S. Regarding the title of this trip, Is This the Isthmus? Tour: For the geographically-challenged, an isthmus is a narrow strip of land that connects two larger land masses. Panama makes up the skinniest section of the isthmus linking North America and South America. This twiggy feature is the main reason the canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was built here. On this three-month trip, I’ll be visiting Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

    Words and photos ©2017 Arcane Candy.

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