Panama 2



There's a gypsy curse that goes along the lines of 'may you never tread the same road nor drink from the same river twice.' Nomads appreciate the importance of - at least periodically - retracing steps through familiar country. There is nothing like the excitement of arriving in a strange, new, spellbinding country where everything strikes you as so bizarrely DIFFERENT...but there is also great pleasure in the feeling of returning to a favourite place after a long absence.



I stare hungrily out of the windows of the shuttle bus as we roar along the highway from Panama's Tocuman airport. My eyes skitter like minnows in a swirling current, picking up every tiny shred of detail. Despite the government's best efforts to ban them from the highways the delightfully painted Diablo Rojo buses are still roaring and gasping like fire-breathing dragons! There’s the ruined tower of Old Panama - the city that was sacked by that hell-raising scoundrel Captain Morgan. We drive through the new town and along Via Argentina where I crane my neck to spot old haunts: Manolo's Cafe; the New York Bagel Cafe; the little Lebanese place where I used to drink strong after-dinner coffees and - simply because it seemed so bizarre to do so in Panama - smoke shisha pipes.


But the new town had never been my favourite part of the city and now we are now entering El Chorillo, the so-called Red Zone. The whole area is famous chiefly ‘for being infamous.’ There are dangerous areas in many cities of course (including – or maybe particularly – apparently ‘civilized’ metropolises like London, Paris and New York) but the people of Panama's old town are not happy simply to declare El Chorillo ‘dangerous.’ With barely concealed pride they would have you believe that El Chorillo is nothing short of fatal. They warn you from going there at every opportunity and even try to chase you back out if you do!


This was a sentiment that was emphasised most dramatically by a taxi driver I know. We were entering El Chorillo and he was going through the normal rigmarole of winding up windows and locking doors. A hole in the windscreen had been cellotaped over and there was something about the tobacco-coloured stain on the glass, like burnt sugar-water, that made me ask what it was. It was, as I had guessed, a bullet-hole. And when we stopped the driver showed me two more thick holes punched into the boot of the car by the gang that had returned fire on the gunman. The taxi driver shrugged and smiled. Just another day in El Chorillo.


But you must run the gauntlet of the Red Zone to get to the Casco Antiguo old town. And it is worth it. Panama is the most charming, interesting and comfortable capital in Central America and the old town with its decadent little squares, tiny cobbled alleyways and crumbling mansions is absolutely the best place to be based. After five previous stops through the city coming back to Panama was like a homecoming. The sort of homecoming you particularly learn to appreciate during long periods of nomadism.


Hotel Casco Antiguo (until recently Hotel Colon) has become my home-from-home here and Coca Cola Cafe (once known as La Apuñalada - 'The Stabbing') is still my favourite eatery in the city. Now the cafe is a shabby, grubby old maid but she was once one of the belles of Panama and counted among her early suitors Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The clientele are the most intriguing crowd of ne’er-do-wells and layabouts in Central America and it can be hard to imagine how even Eva Peron once came to dine here.


Take a chance to cross the Red Zone into old Panama City and you won’t regret it...and, what’s more, you’ll be ahead of the game.

You will see that it will be even better when you come back for the SECOND TIME!