At the Crossroads of the World: Scenes from a World Heritage Site

Erin and I are staying all week in Casco Viejo, Panamá’s 500+ years old, UNESCO World Heritage Site at the heart of the country.

The district serves as an entertainment and culinary hotspot with chefs from around the globe vying to make a name for themselves.

We celebrated my sister’s birthday last night. This was the first time Mary and I have been in Panamá at the same time in over ten years. Normally, we stagger our trips so Mom gets more visits.

One of the cultural differences between my two countries has to do with “Panamá time”. It’s much more relaxed when it comes to concepts like timeliness. And planning horizon. At least for social stuff.

The preferred way to make arrangements is something like “just call me when you get in and we’ll do something”. In the USA, I might have things booked on the calendar a couple weeks in advance.

But it works, as you can tell from the pictures. We planned this get-together on-the-fly (literally — as Erin and I flew down here yesterday). I’m grateful for those who were able to stop by. On a Sunday. Father’s day. With not much notice.

On our second night, we ate dinner last night at a place called Tantalo and loved everything we had to eat: sea bass ceviche, chicken tacos, and a hamburger. All a step up from “food” — elevated to gastronomical treat! We ordered tapas-style.

It’s a Mexican restaurant serving haute cuisine. With excellent and attentive service. And a youthful and energetic vibe. I loved the murals…ranging from psychedelic mushroom inspired fantasy, to a Harpy Eagle goddess, and day-of-the-dead bondage scenes in the men’s bathroom.

The rooftop bar has spectacular views, with the lit tops of cathedrals on one end and the cityscape on the other. And the best part is the elevator so you avoid climbing four flights.

Walking around Casco Viejo, you might spot a beautifully renovated colonial building (converted into apartments or a hotel) right next to a dilapidated shell with a “for sale” sign on it and an ancient tree growing out of its side.

We walked by a couple elementary schools. I love that the area isn’t just a tourist spot but a living community. At least at the moment. Like in many places, the gentrification process is not without controversy.

Tourists and international residents live side-by-side with locals whose roots in the area might run generations deep. The district is dotted with small supermarkets, pharmacy, and convenience stores. Taxis circle the plazas, readily available for trips further afield.

The area is extremely safe, with its own designated tourist police force, patrolling day and night. The presidential palace is located here. Our AIRBNB apartment is across the street from the mayors office and residence. The district is home to many cathedrals and historic churches. Bells toll the hour throughout the day.

I spotted a few rainbow flags. The city’s gay pride parade is on Saturday and ends at a park in Casco Antiguo. Gay Panamanians are embattled. The country is conservative and the Catholic Church exerts a strong influence in local politics. When a regional court ruled that Panamá’s constitution guarantees marriage equality, the political class changed the constitution in response. In the meantime, neighboring Costa Rica and Colombia have made great strides in opening their societies to fully include LGBT+ citizens.

There are a few Guna women in the pictures I took while walking around. The Guna are an indigenous tribe with their homeland in a semi-autonomous province (Guna Yala). I’ve spent time in the San Blas islands, an archipelago of 360+ coral islands that are part of Guna Yala. I brought Erin with me on one trip and he loved it. It’s a paradise.

The Guna are matrilineal (family wealth and name is passed from mother to daughter) and women wear traditional clothing, even in the city, with reverse appliqué textile art on the front and back of their blouses. They wear a gold ring in pierced septum and their ankles and wrists are wrapped in beads that form geometric designs. Their distinct culture coexists along with other cultures in the rich tapestry of life on the isthmus.

From the periphery of the peninsula that is Casco Viejo, you can see the modern skyline of Panamá City ringing the bay on one side.

On the other side, you can see Ancon Hill with the Panamanian flag flying atop what was once a landmark of the US-administered Canal Zone. It’s also the site of my first job — a summer job at the US Department of Defense when I was in high school.

The Bridge of the Americas, spanning the canal, is also visible. As is the causeway connecting two small islands and creating another entertainment zone with marinas, restaurants, pedestrian walks and veloways. The colorful roof of the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseum is also easy to spot from Casco.

And along the horizon, out in the bay, ships line up for transit through the canal.

In the French Plaza at the tip of the peninsula, an obelisk stands with a rooster on top (with a real life vulture perched on top of the rooster for my picture). The monument commemorates the failed French attempt to build a waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the guy who built the Suez Canal, set about to build a similar sea-level passage in Panamá. A French cemetery, near the Pedro Miguel locks, contains the remains of those who lost their lives in Lessep’s effort. His company went bankrupt.

This monument is a pilgrimage for Erin and I. On our first date, Erin said he’d been to Panamá on several occasions. He had never been in the military. How did a guy from central Texas end up in Panamá? His story sounded so improbable that I didn’t believe him.

We went from our lunch to his house where he pulled out pictures from scuba diving in mangrove forests.

“That could be Belize for all I know,” I said.

He then showed me a picture of this obelisk with rooster on top from Casco Viejo. I had an identical picture. And now this location is a special spot for us.

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