Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Casco Viejo

[Kyle]Still being the weekend, we decided to go see Casco Viejo (Spanish for the old Costco) {yes folks, kyle IS joking here...}, which is the medium old part of town, post 1671, after Captain Morgan sacked the even older part of town (Panama Viejo). The marina, which was normal on a weekday, was filled with people standing next to coolers and waiting in a wide line for the ferries to Taboga. Since Casco Viejo was only about three and a half miles from La Playita, we decided to walk the distance.

As soon as we got to the road on the causeway, we intercepted the route of a triathalon being held. One ultra fit person after another zinged by us as we walked. It reminded me of my marathon days and also made me feel tremendously out of shape. At the other end of the causeway, where the runners switched to bikes, we found a guy selling shaved ice for 75¢ ea. After shaving the ice off of a big block, he added the requested flavors and then dribbled on condensed milk. While that seemed strange to us, it was actually a very nice touch.

Panamania Shaved Ice drink has a few extra toppings (and calories) compared to the Italian Grattachecca I had in Rome

We walked with our ices to the Balboa Yacht Club. They have a nice restaurant/bar, but otherwise it didn’t seem appreciably nicer than La Playita, certainly not $140 per week nicer {although they do have showers and laundry which we are lacking!}.

A walk along the causeway and beyond held some interesting views - Kyle is particularly taken with the older buses in Panama - recycled USA school buses tricked out by the driver.

We walked along the waterfront towards Old Costco {yes, kyle IS still joking}. The neighborhood began to deteriorate considerably. We ended up skirting the edge of some abandoned buildings at the edge of the slums. We knew it wasn’t much further, but we were beginning to get nervous about our surroundings. We passed an intersection and about half a block later, some kid around thirteen started yelling at us, asking us where we were going. I turned and waved a hand in a gesture of, “No, thanks. Leave us alone”. He paused for a while and then started calling out to us again. I turned around and gave him the two-handed Italian, “C’mon, What’re you bugging us for?” I noticed then that he had a stick about the size of a baseball bat and he was following us. He kept yelling at us and we just ignored him. I stole a backward glance and noticed another kid with another stick behind the first. We were approaching a heavily populated construction site guarded by police with military weaponry. We knew we would beat the kids to the site as long as they didn’t break into a full run. We kept walking like we belonged there and were able to bid the police, “Buenas Dias” as the kids turned back.

Our street ended, requiring us to go one block in to keep on our course. At the next intersection, the neighborhood worsened. We could see an even worse high-density shantytown further on. We were starting to feel very conspicuous, like rabbits in a field of coyotes. Some of the people in front of the shantytown started walking our way.

“Oh, shit. We have to get out of here, now!” we tried not to look lost as we turned back.

We were still in sight of the police we had passed a block before. Maryanne spotted a vacant cab and flagged him down. For three dollars, he drove us the remaining ten blocks to the Panama Canal Museum, saving us a walk that looked like it was going to cost us a lot more.

When Kyle is ready to swing $cash for a cab, even I know it is time to get out of dodge..., this picutre omits the braying pack of kids

There are several Panamá Canal Museums in the Panamá City area. This one was supposedly the real official one. It was really well done and they clearly had a decent budget for the exhibits, but the museum focused on what had to be THE most boring aspect of the canal’s history – all of the paperwork involved in it’s years of operation. They had original copies of all of the pertinent treaties signed during its various administrations as well as original purchase orders and memos decreeing who was to be responsible for what section.

Conspicuously absent was any of the information we were actually interested in seeing, like how the canal was built or how any part of its infrastructure worked. I was hoping to fill my brain with impressive factoids about what an impressive piece of engineering it was, but instead, all I learned is that bureaucrats can take the fun out of anything.

The central plaza - Plaza De La Independencia and the Iglesia Cathedral - on the weekend the square was filled with stalls (and bicycles) selling tourist memorabilia

Having finished with that, we left the air conditioned museum and stepped into the steaming square adjacent. Casco Viejo is in the midst of a major renovation. The area is a juxtaposition of gorgeous 17th and 18th century architecture and crumbling ruins in a various states of decay between functioning buildings with just enough exposed brickwork to have an artsy feel and ruins with only part of the outside wall standing. It was all extremely charming and seemed to have just the right amount of each level of dereliction. Since the climate is very hot here, most of the buildings have big airy verandas, mostly of wrought iron, that make the place feel alternately like part New Orleans or part Charleston, depending on where we were. {Maryanne: I felt the place had a Cuban feel to it (especially in the areas most neglected), and as we'd turn a corner into a new plaza, we'd then decide it had an Italian feel to the place... Whatever the feel (which I guess is Panamanian), it was an amazing place to wander around it}

Scenes from our walk about... Casco Viejo is a real mix of derelict, ancient, modern, slum, chic, and beautifully renovated. It's a UNESCO world heritage site too

We had an aimless, zigzagging amble back and forth across the district, using our sense of, “Ooh, let’s go see what that is!” to guide our way. When we got hungry enough, we tried a couple of highly recommended inexpensive places in our Lonely Planet guide, but they were both closed. We resumed our wander, now fueled by the urgency of hunger. We passed by a Cuban bar that didn’t seem to sell food. We continued on, but both simultaneously decided it was too interesting to pass up. We needed to get off of our feet for a while, anyway.

A very fun stop at the Havana Club Bar!

I had an amazing mojito. Maryanne had a Cuban beer – Palma Christo. I felt so naughty having a sip. There was Cuban jazz playing and the only four other patrons were all wearing Panamá hats. It really felt like we had stepped into Cuba.

On our random route we also stumbled across the official residence of the President - the white house in Panama. Apparently he rarely resides there, but has great views across the water to the modern Panama City.

We continued on until we found a pizza place on Simón Bolivar Square run by real Italians. When our waiter learned we understood some Italian, he did a whole back and forth with us that was just beyond our level. In the process, he sold us a bottle of Sicilian wine to go with our meal. We had started by looking for one level above cheap street food, but ended up having a pretty pricy meal. The meal was pretty mediocre, although the staff was endearingly optimistic. What we really paid for was the setting on a beautiful afternoon in the perfect little square.

Pizza at Parque Bolivar

Before leaving we took a waterfront walk to peruse (and purchase) some native Panamanian items and spotted the old jails (gaols) now converted into art galleries and restaurants (and a wedding chapel!)

We took a cab back to the Balboa Yacht Club with the idea of having a couple of drinks with the sailors there. The crowd turned out to be a lot of tourists and the place felt like a Chili’s on a busy night (we keep forgetting it's the weekend!). We skipped it and walked back to La Playita along the causeway.

The walk home reminded us of Italy or Greece. Everybody seemed to be out on an evening stroll with their families. Everybody was smiling and enjoying themselves. Parents were teaching their little kids how to ride bikes, lovers were cuddled up on benches or at the bases of trees watching the sunset, groups of friends on rented pedal cars were trying not to crash their way down the path.

We made it home just as the last of the light bled out of the sky. We tried to stay up longer, but we had walked too far and had too much sun. We found ourselves quickly nodding off, so we called it an early night.

[Maryanne]Please don't worry, we've since established the bus routes so that we don't have to walk through any uncomfortable neighbourhoods for any future visits!

1 comment:

kate rodenhouse said...

YIKES! You guys, that was a just a little disturbing! Glad everything turned out okay, but suffice to say, it's one thing for a kid to yell angrily at you for no reason, it's altogether different when he's wielding a bat-sized stick. I imagine your heart beat picked up just a smidge. Still and all, what charming surroundings - love all the color, the archway of bougainvillea, and even the romantic decay (which, hmmm, might not be considered romantic if you live in one of those crumbling buildings). Shaved ices! And that mojito looked yummy, Kyle! Casco Viejo certainly does seem to combine Italy, Cuba and New Orleans in equal parts. And wow, the Bilboa Yacht Club! That makes me think of the Kurt Weill song, "That Old Bilboa Moon," a wonderful song from his and Brecht's musical "Happy End," (a particular favorite of mine). It always evoked such an exotic old-world feel for me.

So happy to have you guys back blogging about the newest sights and sounds in your ever-changing world!