Welcome to Casco Viejo – touristy, trendy old town – full of colourful French/Spanish architecture housing cool bars, restaurants, and punctuated by ornate churches.
We start our walk through clean, cobbled streets and find ourselves in a neighbourhood full of windowless buildings, peeling paint, smells of neglect. Stepping carefully over garbage strewn gutters, later, I learn we had ventured through the El Chorillo district – ‘peligroso’ (dangerous) at night.
A taxi to the Bio Museo – a Frank Gehry designed building full of facts: 3 islands, formed from underwater volcanic eruptions, merged to create Panama, connecting North and South America.
Taking in the impressive exhibits, we meander through a room featuring large creatures from the Pliocene Epoch including fast-moving, 2 metre sloths (lived 3 million years ago). How did they become sooo slowww?
The sweltering heat slows our walk along the Amador Causeway towards the towers of new Panama City on the opposite shore of Panama Bay – sleek, glass skyscrapers crowd together…does the skyline look like Manhattan?
City Overload …
Escape to Jungles of Gamboa (40 minutes from Downtown Panama)
Trekking along the Shunga Trail, a bone-chilling cry makes me turn my head. It’s the elusive Howler monkey. Only 3 feet tall, but its cry is as big as King Kong’s and as ominous. It howls to tell other monkeys: I’m here, don’t bother me.
I picture it eating wild figs, high up in the trees, while watching the reaction of unsuspecting tourists.
Our guide says: ‘See those dark brown cone-shaped nests? Home of Aztec ants.’
‘Ow.’ Bugs are biting. I rub carbolic soap on exposed legs (should have worn long pants).
Wouldn’t want it to break open. He warns us to stay on the path. Beware of tarantulas and scorpions!
Still haven’t seen a sloth.
A smatter of rain begins, walk faster. It pours. At the end of the trail, high up in the Trumpet trees, a sleeping sloth (perezoso) and baby attached to her belly, hangs on a branch. Straining my neck, trying not to get soaked, I see the fuzzy brown lumps move.
Yay – sloth spotted!
Back in the taxi, scratching my bites, I look out to see a crazy twisting tower (the F&F Building) – aka The Tornado.
At the next curve in the road, we pass a sculpture of young men climbing a wire fence. Informed by driver that it commemorates a student uprising against the American military on Jan 9, 1964 (Martyr’s Day) when 21 students died for freedom.
Rebellions, history, colonialism, innovation, nature … coming at me from all angles. Panama, a lot to absorb – I take it all in.
Onward to the Canal!