It was early a Tuesday morning that it was finally time to leave Nicaragua and the Quetzaltrekkers adventure in the past. I knew it was time, but it was still a feeling of leaving something special behind. A bit like the day I left for the airport back in September, knowing I wouldn’t see familiar faces or places in many months. So it happened in León as well. It did eventually become a home, something familiar that felt like a place I belonged to in a world so far from my own roots. But then at the same time it was nothing like saying goodbye to life back home. That life will always be there, but the reality of my ‘nicalife’ evaporated into beautiful memories the day I left León for good. Maybe it wasn’t so strange then, that when I got to the Costa Rican border, all I could see through the rain was clouded grey skies ahead and blue sunny skies behind me over the land of volcanos and lakes. Such warm, happy memories forever in me.
Now, if you ever find yourself spending an excessive amount of time in Nicaragua as your first stop on your travels through the Americas it will be a proper slap in the face the day you cross into the neighboring countries, especially if you follow in my footsteps and go south. It is strange how economics can vary so much on a small continent, but that became evident in my blank stare and wide open mouth about 10 minutes after crossing into Costa Rica. I love Nicaragua, but I love traveling more and it was excitement that took over as soon as I hit the road towards my new final destination Colombia! Costa Rica in all was just a pit stop on the way to Panama. We spent one night in San Jose cruising through to the panamanian border the next day. Within two days of leaving León we arrived in Bocas del Toro, the popular archipelago north in Panama. With time restricted to only a week before leaving to Colombia, it was a quick in and out visit and I only got to wander around Bocas Town which was cool enough with lots of restaurant and bars in colourful buildings. I know everyone I have met brags uncontrollably of Bocas, but I just couldn’t seem to get into the island grove that was going on.
I keep saying I’m a city girl and I was dead ready to spend most of my panamanian week in the Capital. I had been dreaming of Panama City for a long time. This coastal city with the modernity of a western metropolis and the charming character of European architecture is the only gran municipality on the Central American continent worth visiting for more than a stop over or to stack up on western goods you can’t find elsewhere. Knowing that Honduras is the murder capital of the world and El Salvador having one of the most feared gangs on the planet, the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) there was never any worthwhile reason to multiple by a thousand, the chances of being robbed or worse. Even walking around the streets of Managua at midday you would have those friendly locals telling you cuidado and ladrones while they were pointing at your bag. Yea, it was good to get caught up in a city that wasn’t mostly known for its gangs, murders and thefts. I loved it, coming in over the Bridge of the Americas where massive vessels were resting in the Panama Canal and skyscraper after skyscraper kept popping up front in the distance reflected in the Pacific Ocean.
I guess our hostel was situated in a rather posh area of the city when a taxi driver asked us why on earth we were haggling on prices when we stayed in Marbella!? Well, Sir, it is not like we are staying at the Hilton penthouse, but in a dorm room with another 11 people. So maybe you can shut up and take us for those $2 we are offering you? White people are not made of money you know!! Thanks amigo. The Machico was a rather nice hostel although amenities such as a massive bathtub and pool wasn’t exactly what it was dying to try out while in the city. After dropping our bags off me and Romy went for a walk along the esplanade enjoying amazing views of the skyline. We walked in direction of the Casco Antiguo in hope of a stroll around, but by the time we got there we had to catch a taxi to Cerro Ancon to be in time to see the city in the afternoon sun. After a 20 minute walk to the top we joined a number of city dwellers on their regular sporty outing to the Ancon summit. From the top we had stunning views of the city on one side and the Panama Canal on the other. Back down on sea level we had to take the advantage of not seeing a mall in 4 months and had a look around the Multicentro Mall just a 5 minute walk from the hostel. Early night on these two girls.
After a night well slept we were ready to see some more highlights around the capital. We bought ourselves a metro card for $2 which let us use the public transport around town for a small 25 cents per ride. First stop was Panama Viejo which is the remaining ruins of what used to be Panama City when the Spanish conquistadores founded it in 1519 as the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean. One of the best conserved remains is the Cathedral where you can, on newly built stairs, climb to the top and view the city from above. Panama Viejo reached around ten thousand inhabitants before it was destroyed in 1671 by the attack of Welsh privateer Henry Morgan who burned it to the ground. It’s hard to imagine what it must have looked like once, thriving and developing from nothing to thousands of people in the span of 150 years. I wonder for a while and then my impatience sets in and it eventually just looks like rocks on a nice green piece of land in a big city. On to the next barrio!
Now, the second stop of the day on the other hand could keep me mesmerized for days on end. After the lovable mister Morgan destroyed Panama Viejo, the surviving settlers started from scratch and built a new city to the west of what is today the modern centre of Panama. People started settling here in 1673 and today it is known as the Casco Antiguo or ‘Old Town’. A lot of restoration has taken place over the resent years and it has become a stunningly beautiful part of Panama City that will charm the pants of you. From Parque de Santa Ana through to the Paseo de Las Bóvedas you will fall more in love with every uncovered street, church and park you come across. We spent the best part of the day getting lost in a world of the captivating beauty of European architecture which has been modernised with the touch of funky street art and fashionable eateries and hotels. After coming across a gorgeous building that was newly renovated and with empty apartments, my heart was breaking when it brought home the fact that this was only a visit and not a permanent stay.
Across from the Iglesia Merced we came across UNIDO Coffee Roasters, a beautiful blue café that served great Chai tea and delicious Croissants.It fueled our appetite further and after being smitten by the Plaza de Independencia, Cathedrals and the Tomás Herrera square, with a brilliant touch of imaginative street art, we sat down at La Rosa de Los Vientos to cool down with a Cerveza and fill our stomachs with Italian pizza.
And then as we past the queue outside Granclement (Gourmet Ice Cream & Sorbets) my dessert revealed itself to me on the corner of Calle 2a Oeste. Forever Yoghurt the heaven on earth for every frozen Yoghurt lover. Worth every cent and then some. The words ‘can’t get enough’ went racing through my head and I think it still does. To make a beautiful day in the Old Town perfect, the Paseo de Las Bóvedas lay beautifully on the edge of the Pacific, offering great views of the skyscrapers that seems a world away from where you are. On our way out of Casco Antiguo we stubbled upon the newly opened Villa Palma Boutique Hotel. We went inside and took a sneak peak at the restaurant and bar that covers the grounds of the first floor. Oh hail to Francesco Molon, the Italian designer that furnished this jaw dropping gorgeous piece of an hotel. After wiping the drool of our faces and taking some pictures, we reluctantly left the building. If you got some cash to spend and finding yourself in Panama City, check out this Jewel.
At the edge of the Old Town we found a quirky and cosy Mexican restaurant, La Jirafa de María del Alma with a rooftop bar with views of the city. We finished off the night at La Rana Dorada, a cerveceria that served home brew made right there in the bar. Before deciding on a beer the bartender gave us samples of the five different beers available to let us choose our favorite. It was finally time for me to try some stout! Casco Antiguo got me hooked and it was unwillingly that I had to leave it behind. Panama City turned out to exceed all expectations despite already having a couple of favorite stamps before even arriving. The combination of old and new, modern and antique makes up for an interesting and diverse metropolis. I’m already excited about returning in June. Until next time I will be dreaming of getting lost in the city.