Bienvenidos a Panamá. Scenes From Panamá.
For our third year anniversary, Jeni and I again decided to head down to Central America. We just love the food, the warmness of the people and short flights from Los Angeles. Within three and a half hours, you can be eating amazing street food in Mexico City or Guadalajara for almost nothing. Within six hours yours, you can be scuba diving in crystal clear waters of Belize, potentially with whale sharks. And this time, within six hours, we were on our way to Panama. From here, it’s just amazing how different your perspective changes. The pace of life, ambient sounds, architecture – but all very adaptable of course. While some may view a country as less developed than say, United States, I don’t even consider that at all. I think about the colors, textures and vibrancy I’ll be experiencing. And not to mention how good the food will be. To best capture all of that, film photography is the way to go. We’re culture freaks and Latin America is a sizzling 60 oz. medium rare, bone-in steak of culture. So without further ado, a few scenes from Panama in film.
For me, the taxi ride from the airport into the city is always the most fun and interesting part of the trip. It is your first interaction with a person of that country and he can very well set the tone for the trip. For those a bit “concerned” about a country’s safety, I’d advise an arrival during the day so that you can see what the hell is going on. When we went to Guilin, China a few years back, we landed at the airport and took a two and a half hour taxi ride into the middle of nowhere at 2 am. We didn’t know what in the world was going on. When you’re tired, disoriented and confused, you become a little concerned for your safety. But this taxi ride was just like any other in Central America – the taxi driver was super happy, hospitable and honest. They are usually very excited that you’ve come to see their country.
Within a few minutes, we were out on the main highway along the coast and all I could think about were the blue skies and towering clouds – simply idyllic. If Miami “got it on” with Macau, Panama could be its child. You’ve got that humidity and beach feel of Miami with Macau’s high-rises and rapid commercialization. Oh yeah, there’s also a huge population of Chinese in Panama too!
After we checked into our hotel, we headed to an area called Casco Viejo, or Panama’s “Old Town”. As a possible contender for UNESCO’s world heritage list, there are some really nice parts we enjoyed walking through. Some parts of it are geared towards tourists with eateries and bars, but the majority of the area is still occupied by a lot of residents. Simply smiling at the locals will get you one in return usually.
Night time in Panama is a bit different and completely hectic. 4 pm is traffic time and with no metro system, everyone is piling into buses and taxis. At each bus stop, there were at least 40-50 people in line – insane! Get ready for a higher taxi bill and more exposure to Panamanian music.
The buses in Latin America are some of the most functional yet funky buses I’ve ever seen. We rode one in Mexico City and it was a lot of fun for some reason. They are basically “school buses gone wild”. You take a big school bus, tattoo it with random spray-paint murals of large bosomed women or Japanese anime (in the style of Low Rider art) and feed the whole bus ecstasy pills. Bam! The Latino Metro bus. This one above is called “El Gladiador” and it always has the right of way.
I love trying all the local beer and rum in Central America. The beers available in Panama are the eponymous Panama, Atlas, Soberana and Balboa. Atlas was my favorite; Balboa was the least because it tasted like it was made with rum. For rums, I highly recommend Ron Abuelo 25 year – delicious and only $15 for some of Panama’s best! Take your next ride on the Ecstasy Bus to another level and drink some of these beforehand.
It’s interesting to know that back in 1850, both Panama and Colombia were united under the republic of New Granada, but it ended nearly 30 years later. Because Panama is directly in between Central and South America, you’ll find remnants of other countries like Colombia’s ceviche and arepas. Arepas are a corn-based snack typically found in Colombia and resemble the Salvadorian pupusa. Mexico also has a similar version called sopes. Tasty!
After watching Bourdain’s Panama episode in which he visited Chinatown, we had to check it out. We’ve been Chinatowns in Mexico City, Japan and Buenos Aires and I love seeing how different, or alike they are to Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The Chinese came to Panama in the 1850s through Canada and Jamaica to assist in the construction of the Panama Railroad. Since then, their population in Panama has grown to 300,000 and their food is very much considered a prominent staple amongst non-Chinese Panamanians. I asked the taxi driver if he enjoyed eating Chinese food and he exclaimed, “me encanta!” (I love it!) This business is called Rosticeria Mey Mey, which means “Delicious/Tasty BBQ restaurant”.
This is Restaurante Kwang Chow, which Bourdain visited with a local Chinese Panamanian. We just came by to look at it and didn’t try the food. Once I saw spaghetti pasta being used for the wonton soup noodles I already knew it would be a waste of stomach space. The BBQ goods from the “Chinese Zoo” looked good though.
We walked into a supermarket to do what I usually do in Latin American countries – search for Maggi Seasoning Sauce. I’ve found versions of Maggi from Mexico, Brazil and Honduras, but none to be found at this market. The man on the right runs a BBQ restaurant. While I spoke to him in Cantonese Chinese, I could hear his grandchildren speaking to each other in Spanish. Very cool!
We stopped by a place in Casco Viejo for some scallop and corvina ceviche. Panamanian ceviche uses corvina, cashews, sweet potatoes and lime juice. Tasty, but not my favorite like Colombian-style ceviche which employs cream, honey and lime.
Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood Market)
This is another point of interest if you’re into food. Open from 7 am until 8 pm, you can lay your eyes on Panama’s freshest seafood. No flash freezing allowed! With two oceans to choose from, you’ve got double the amount of options available. I couldn’t believe how cheap everything was. You can get langostines for like $5/lb and lobsters at $12-15/lb.
Panamanian pargo or huachinango, otherwise known as Red Snapper. Although, the most common fish used in Panamanian ceviche is corvina, which is a type of sea bass found in the Pacific ocean. Korean restaurants is Los Angeles also serve corvina deep fried or grilled – tasty.
In addition to the fresh seafood you can buy, there are 5-6 ceviche vendors. All the ceviche is kept in giant glass jars and packed deep in crushed ice. For $1-4, you can choose from things like corvina, shrimp, langostine and bloody clams. I’ve seen some ceviche places in Mexico that use no ice and you should decide carefully if that’s worth eating. This was way more reassuring. I tried the shrimp one here and it was mixed with chopped pickles and mayonnaise – very tangy and creamy.
Bloody clams (concha negra) tasted OK. I did enjoy the ceviche juice (leche de tigre) though. I think La Cevicheria in Los Angeles serves up a great Guatemalan version of concha negra ceviche.
Corvina ceviche is really good but I almost prefer red snapper over the somewhat tougher texture. Here you can see they serve their ceviches with a Latino brand of Saltine crackers. Corvina when cooked or grilled is excellent though.
Next to the ceviche vendor we ate at, we found some ladies offering up Creole-style (Criollo) food. We couldn’t resist the food they were cooking – it smelled awesome. We saw all the locals eating this and ordered the same. This is called huacho, what I refer to as Caribbean congee, and it’s basically a rice stew made with dried shrimp, chunks of corvina and I’m guessing a lot of chicken bouillon seasoning. They add a spicy tomato paste on top and it’s delicious. Only $2 for a HUGE styrofoam cup of it.
The best part of our trip was when we rented a car and got out of the city. We drove north for about an hour towards the city of Colon and its completely different than Panama City – a bit rougher. But another hour from there is a beautiful Caribbean getaway called Isla Grande. For $2.50 each way, per person, you can take a five-minute water taxi ride across to this tiny, but awesome island.
After hanging out at Isla Grande, we were hungry from swimming and frolicking in the clear Caribbean waters. Just before you get to Isla Grande is a tiny town called Portobelo and it isn’t short of any restaurants. We stopped at a place called Mariscos Cañones and I’m glad we did. Pictured above is camarones al ajillo, shrimps deep-fried with garlic sauce. Best part was sucking out the matter from the shrimp heads.
I think Panama has a great deal to offer with its two oceans. The culture is heavily mixed; the people are simply nice and proud of their culture. It definitely won’t be my last time here. Happy anniversary to my wife, Jeni – here’s to more amazing trips to Central and South America. And thank you for reading.
*Photographs shot with a Canon 1V on Kodak Portra 400/800 film.