Friday, February 11, 2011

Casco Viejo

This morning we got up early to catch the bus to David and then the long distance bus to Panama City. As we walk to the bus station, we saw the bus just pass in front of us, I made quick wave, hoping to catch the attention of the bus attendant, but the bus continue on, and I thought to myself it is going to be at least 30 minute wait for next one. But couple seconds later, I heard backup sound of a vehicle and the bus has saw us and we are on our way to David (the 3rd time). It took a while to get to David as the bus stop for a while to wait for passengers to show up along the way. We got to the David’s bus terminal about 8:30 and got our bus tickets ($12.50) and settle in on the bus for the 7 hours ride.

We arrived in Panama City’s main bus terminal without any problems (the bus crossed over the Bridge of Americas over the Panama Canal). The terminal itself is a gigantic place with taxi, minivans, and school buses everywhere. After retrieving our luggage, we headed toward taxi area and were quickly approached by a guy asking if we need taxi, he is obvious targeting foreigners. I didn’t mind it too much and just ask how much it cost to goto Casco Viejo figuring as long as he is not overcharging us too much, it is ok. I think we paid $6 (should be around 4-5), and we are on our way to a hostel in Casco Viejo. We passed some depressing looking slums, and arrived at the hostel very quickly.

There aren’t many budget accommodations in Panama City and many places are all booked out in the short term. So we ended with one bunk bed for me and a private room with share bath for Wendy and mom. It is not the best looking hostel I have seen, but it will have to do for couple days. The free breakfast consisted thing bread with peanut butter and bananas, not very appetizing. The bathrooms were very messy by evening and one have “jammed”. Mom wanted something more comfortable for her arm, so I was going to checkout another place near the next day, but a couple Spanish travelers offered to let me use their laptop, so I spend an hour or so looking for reasonable priced, centrally located, and safe place. It was impossible to find one, so I ended go for a boutique hotel in central banking district of Panama City for $180 a night! More on that in later post.

Casco Viejo (Old Compound) is old part of Panama City. It was built here following the destruction of the old city (Panama Viejo) in 1671 by Henry Morgan. This tiny enclave was all that of Panama City at 1904 when Panama canal construction started. The neighborhood here quickly deteriorated into slum after the city's expansion during canal era.

Today, gentrification is well under way. With many newly rebuild/restored buildings co-exist side-by-side with abandoned or dilapidated ones. But overall the vibe here is very positive and energetic (no small thanks to heavy police presence). Lots new high end restaurants and stored, but you still can find some cheap cafeteria style eateries (run by Chinese).

It was nice to wonder the narrow and cobbled streets with its distinct "smell", while try to avoid cars and construction. We wondered the street in the late afternoon sun as well during the early morning hours. We even visited the outside of the President’s palace after many attempts only to be told to come back one hour later and to be told the same thing again. There is a museum on Panama Canal in heart of Casco Viejo which we visited. Even though almost everything is in Spanish, it was still nice, especially it has air conditioning, benches, and very nice restroom, which we all had the pleasure of taking a seat  We also visited nearby shopping area with department stores and street vendors – very few tourist venture out to this area.

We wished we were able to spend a weekend night here, as there surely a fiesta or two among its squares.

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