Bien Pretty



The first thing you notice when you leave the airport in Panama is the tropical heat. Sometimes the heat is also the second and third things you notice. But very quickly you are certain to notice the buses. Panama has the most outrageously pimped buses in the world. In an earlier incarnation they were staid and respectable boxlike Bluebirds shuttling North American highschool kids around. When they were retired off they promptly swapped their boring mustard-yellow livery for a riot of lurid paintwork and hypnotising day-glo graffiti. There are garish pink buses that look like monstrous wedding cakes on wheels, emblazoned with Looney Tunes characters or fairytale castles; there are other hellish ‘death squad vehicles’ bearing hosts of vampires, ghouls and tormented spirits and with giant fibreglass shark-fins rearing from the roof. And of course many of the rest fall into three categories: busty pouting blondes, football players and the Virgin Mary. 


On any Panama City street you can witness a parade of pimped buses that would make most custom car shows seem downright lame. Drivers and owners will pay thousands of dollars for a paintjob that is bien pretty (to use the ubiquitous Panamanian expression for everything cool). A bus that is bien pretty is sure to win passengers away from competitors. Many Panamanians will happily ignore several buses while they wait for their favourite to turn up. After it is like riding home on a fairground carousel. There is also a safety aspect to all this. The so-called Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) have a terrible safety record and passengers hope that a well-painted bus might also have some chance of having functioning brakes.

Amid the phenomenal political posturing that is all part of the forthcoming elections here, plans are underway (…and then off again…and then back on again) to scrap all 1,200 of these rolling works of art. They will be replaced with the usual oblong Chinese-built buses that people here refer to as ‘refrigerators.’ As one bus artist pointed out to me though: “Who’s ever going to take the trouble to make a refrigerator look bien pretty…?”

For the time being these buses are hard to ignore and remain a colourful reminder of an old-time Panama that is changing fast. The Casco Antiguo (the old town) is surrounded by water on three sides and has a feeling more of a village than of part of a big city. It was once considered impregnable to attack…until Captain Morgan and his army of swash-buckling louts came swaggering into the city to a rousing chorus of ‘There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight.’

These days that watery barricade seems to be proving more effective as a defence against the modernisation that is rapidly sweeping all along the waterfront from here to the so-called Banking Zones and the luxury condos on Punta Paitilla. The Casco Antiguo remains a sleepy little village of pastel coloured townhouses, crumbling palaces and whitewashed chapels. But there is always something going on in Casco Antiguo. Wandering out for coffee this morning I meet a protest group of displaced indigenous people from Bocas region and a couple of roving Chilean rafting guides in a fluorescent hatchback that has come all the way from Canada on vegetable oil. Just an average morning in Casco Antiguo.

Nightlife in this barrio has a feel all its own too. There are a couple of wonderful terraces on the pretty Plaza Bolivar and a couple of late night drinking spots on Plaza Herrera. All of them are known for loud music. Bar Comedia is a Colombian-run place that sometimes hires very bizarre street performers. Late at night you check out the live music at La Casona, a great, high-ceilinged warehouse of a bar that is often very lively and usually has ongoing exhibitions of sandstone sculptures or oversized driftwood wind chimes. 


Later still you pick up a takeaway bottle of Seco Herrerano (local rum that is traditionally drank with milk) and mosey down to Los Baños Publicos. These were once literally the public baths. Now it is just an unmarked door leading to one musty room with a mix ‘n’ match collection of sofas and chairs. A homemade stage is set up for random jamming sessions. More of a squat than a bar this place doesn’t even have a license – hence the takeaway seco. It’s about as Bohemian as you can get…sometimes excessively so.

Panama’s old town is building a reputation as a bulwark of Latin American art (although some old-timers predictably complain that ‘the scene’ is not what it used to be). Even so this unique little patch of Latin American urban waterfront can at times give a feeling of what Montmartre might have felt like in headier days, or Greenwich Village, or even Haight-Ashbury. Several photographers have set up third floor studios (there are few building higher than that) that make the most of the cool Pacific tradewinds. Artists prop their easels on the waterfront at Las Bóvedas to paint the sun setting behind the Bridge of the Americas. Guitarists pluck their strings in tree-shaded Plaza Santa Ana.

Meanwhile in a cheap coldwater room in Hotel Colon a roving writer sits typing on a mattress in which the springs are busting through. He rises to close the slatted windows in a futile attempt to subdue the blaring merengue that rises from the street. His mind drifts to thoughts of a chilled bottle of Balboa beer. Then he goes back to putting the finishing touches to a story that he had hoped might to some extent capture the character of old Panama…

‘There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight