Panama was my first passport stamp, and a great learning experience. I still remember being nervous and anxious as I boarded my flight to the Central American country. I arrived just as the sun began to set, and took a taxi to Sortis Hotel in the Obarrio neighborhood. Sortis was located in a nice area for me, as it was very close to El Cangrejo and the Via Argentina metro station. It was also directly across from Farmacia Arrocha, which was like a CVS and came in handy for bottled water and snacks. The hotel also had a casino, spa, nice pool, and several dining options. I had Sunday brunch inside the hotel at Manabi, and although it was not my most memorable meal in Panama, it was very good.
When I think back to my time in Panama, the food definitely comes to mind. I enjoyed the empanadas at Los Venezolanos, churros at Churreria Manolo, Panamanian coffee, and dinner at El Caribe. El Caribe and Los Venezolanos are gems that I still think about on a regular basis. Panamanian coffee is strong, and I wish I had brought some back with me.
One of the main reasons I ventured to Panama was to see Black Jesus, or Cristo Negro. I rented a car in Panama City and headed to Portobelo for a day trip. The Waze app is what guided me in the right direction during the two-hour trek. I drove down the winding roads, and admired the natural beauty of the countryside until I arrived at my location. There, I parked on a one way street and followed some other people who looked like tourists in order to find my way to Iglesia de San Felipe. When I’m trying to find a tourist attraction, I’ve learned that following someone with a camera around his neck and New Balance sneakers can lead me right where I need to be.
There He was in royal purple carrying the weight of the cross in agony. I glanced around the church first and noticed that I was alone. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel, so I stood there directly in front of Him looking at his face. There was no spiritual reawakening – more like an appreciation for the artist and this depiction of Jesus with skin like fine brass and an expression of weariness. Most of the depictions of Christ that I have viewed have been expressionless, many more have been downright horrendous, and we’ve all seen the European standard blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned Christ.
For the first time in life, I was standing in the presence of a life-sized Christ who shared the same skin color as me. I sat on one of the pews and let the fan blow air on my face. A handful of tourists trickled in and out of the church as I tried to find some sort of connection with this statue. I couldn’t. It was nothing more than a beautiful representation of Christ and an intriguing piece of art to me. I carried the true Christ with me all the time.With that in mind, I stood and walked out of the church. Just outside was a set up of vendors, and I bought a mini Cristo Negro from an Afro-Panamanian girl before I continued wandering.
Portobelo as a city is pretty small area off the Caribbean coast. To be honest, I passed it up during the drive, and had to turn around when I realized I had gone too far. The city has Spanish forts that are a World Heritage Site, but they are not well-maintained. It seems as if the economic impact in Panama has been solely in Panama City, and much of the areas outside of that are ignored.
On the way back to Panama City from Portobelo, my plan was to get a view of the city from Ancon Hill. I drove my little Toyota Yaris past the security guard and up and narrow roadway to an entrance gate that was closed. The gentleman sitting at the gate let me know that access to Ancon Hill closes at around 3 pm, and I was too late. I was bummed about that.
Wandering around Casco Viejo and Avenida Central was nice highlight. No one approached me, but most locals smiled and acknowledged my presence. Many of the buildings in Casco Virgo have been getting facelifts, and there was a good bit of street art to admire. It rained everyday between 3 pm and 6 pm when I was there, so I found shelter in various museums and coffee shops.
Panamá City really was a city of contrasts. Standing at the Cinta Costera park, if I looked in one direction, I would’ve thought I was in Miami or Dubai. Turn in the other direction and you are reminded that you are still in a third world country. Life in Panamá City was a stark contrast to the views of Portobelo. Colón really is a forgotten and abandoned province.
Overall, I think Panama was a great country to obtain my first passport stamp. The official currency is actually a combination of the US dollar and the Balboa coin. I purchased with and received change in USD, except for a couple of times where I got a combination of both. Having the USD as its currency meant relief from the hassle of currency exchange.
It was also easy and inexpensive to get around. Taxis are probably the most common way to get around, and the rates are inexpensive. Panamá City also has Uber and the similar Tu Chofer, both of which you can book on a phone app. My favorite manner of getting around was the Metro. It was one of the highlights of my trip. For 35 cents a ride, you can get around Panamá City. I wouldn’t recommend driving due to the road rage, traffic, and rare street signage.
Many residents speak English. The official language is Spanish, and it is always recommended to know a bit of the native tongue. However, I found that the majority of the people in the hospitality industry were multilingual. The only time I wasn’t able to communicate was during an ordeal regarding my Panapass – a windshield sticker that tollbooths scan for access to the toll roads – while driving the Corredor Norte, and with a beggar.
Safety was my main concern as a female solo traveler, and I must say that I felt safe during my entire stay. The neighborhood of my hotel, Obarrio, had officers on about every other block. I ventured into Casco Viejo alone late on a Friday night, and also noted officers on every other block, especially on corners that led to “sketchy” areas. Calidonia seemed pretty quiet and uneventful. The El Cangrejo neighborhood and Cinta Costera were filled with tourists at all hours, so I felt more comfortable navigating through those areas. It wasn’t all perfect, though. There was the occasional street harassment, and the city could certainly use more streetlights.