My grand plan for Panama City was to stay in two contrasting neighborhoods, the more historical one coming in, and the flashy bank district with all its glitz and glamour on the way home. Lonely Planet had talked up the Casco Viejo neighborhood as ¨less seedy than 5 years ago¨ and one of Panama City´s most up and coming hip and trendy places. Where you might see abandoned buildings, then you would find youself in a hip, candle lit retaurant.
After a quick and painless trip down to Panama and no stay this time in a crappy Dallas holiday inn, the humidity was completely overwhelming. I am not complaining.... But wow was it hot, even at 9PM. I used a trick I had read about to get a cheaper taxi into town, (it´s a good one! Go to the arrivals area and get a taxi dropping someone off. They are more willing to cut you a deal than the guys getting all the people coming off the plane into the country for the first time. I paid $10 less than the book said it would cost!) This is what I was thinking as we drove through Panama City:
wow, this is nice! beautiful high rises, what a skyline... Love that salsa music in the taxi. da..dadada...da. da! Ba ba baba!! Hey.. I´m in PANAMA now! kickass! oooh, fancy hotels and casinos... Ok where are we going now?
CLICK!!! my driver locks the doors
holy crap are those prostitutes? What the? Oh man... wow. Bad slum. very bad slum. Damn you Lonely Planet! I might have my driver turn this car around and take me back to the Sheraton I saw a ways back...Is he taking me here to kill me or is this how Casco Viejo is going to be?
He called my hotel for directions, (not his murder accomplice as I was thinking) then we finally found the Hospedaje Casco Viejo. The neighborhood was better than before, we were just separated from Panama City by a horrific slum. Still, I was pretty shellshocked when I walked in but relieved to see some backpackers in the lobby. Before I even checked into my room (which was huge, had a balcony and a great fan), they asked me if I wanted to go out for a beer. Um, YES.
I joined Miranda (teacher from N Cali) Eli (cute little culinary student from Savannah) and an older dude, I forgot his name, but he was close friends with Abby Hoffman in the 60s and went to the Chicago 7 trial. He wrote a book about the 60s as well and I have to look for it. Miranda had also been in Thailand during the tsunami, and had been to Antigua over Christmas. So the three of us had lots to talk about. Everyone had some travel stories, and What´s his name had good stories about Chicago in 1971 during the Chicago 7 trial. I couldn´t have asked for a better crew for my first night in Panama. A free spirit, a culinary student and a genuine, authentic hippie.
Casco Viejo was charming at night, though a little sketch and I was relived to have company. Miranda and I had just arrived, and Eli had been here for a few nights. He took us to a jazz bar, then to a cool outdoor restaurant with some live music. I accidentally ordered prawn soup instead of lobster, but it was still fanstastic. It had a huge, whole prawn floating in the top. I love it when I get to make eye contact with my food. I suddenly remembered again that it was my birthday and they all gave me hugs and bought me a beer.
We wandered around a little bit more, and heard a live band coming from a stone wall. It was this place I had read about, La Casona. Kind of a run down, though atmospheric public space that sometimes has performances, music jams, theme nights, etc. Literally just an ancient stone wall with a roof overhead, with lots of candles. It looked like a place we might have an underground dinner party in Chicago. The only other gringo in there, a girl from New york who made it clear that she was ¨with the band¨, so nicely gave us a few beers from a plastic bag. The band consisted of three boozed up college kids, and they took turns pretending to be Axl rose. We heard ¨don´t cry¨, and ¨knock knock knockin on heaven´s door! .. ay...AY AYAYAY!!!!¨ Along with some of their own Panamanian ballads that everyone but us knew. Miranda and I were laughing at one of their friends, a kid who wasn´t in the band but stood ALMOST on the stage and sang along to every song. He had a very impressive beer belly - he looked pregnant. And the tight white soccer shirt wasn´t helping his look. We thought about funny songs we've heard that we could request ¨hey, do you know gasolina? Do you know papichula?¨
We capped off the night on the roof of the hostel with a couple more balboas (one of panama´s beers) and I finally went to bed around 230A.