A long Carnaval weekend in Panama City
02/04/2016 - 02/08/2016 86 °F
By all rights this section of the blog should be entitled "Wheels down Panama City", since we never actually left the capital. The problem is that the English language internet believes that the only important Panama City is a resort town in the Florida panhandle. Any time one searches for an activity or restaurant in Panama City, one has to make sure that the search result doesn't actually refer to the city in Florida. It's often easier just to search using "Panama" and then scroll to the results that focus on the capital. The blog title is to avoid similar confusion.
The main reasons we chose Panama City for our first trip with all three kids and no nanny were that it is a relatively short three hour plane ride away, warm in February, and a country neither of us had ever been to. It was also clear there was much more to the city than we could expect to find on a Caribbean island, for example. When I bought the tickets, it never entered my mind that it might be Carnaval weekend. I always thought that Carnaval would be in mid-February at the earliest, and we were going the first weekend of the month. In fact, the 2016 Carnaval was the earliest since 2008. This actually turned out to be quite fortuitous for us, since it provided us with nonstop food and entertainment options right at our doorstep.
Since it was a short trip and we had no plans to leave Panama City, we decided not to rent a car. That meant no car seats, of course, so a much easier trip through airport security. We fit all our supplies into two carry-ons, although Mei Ling definitely pushed the envelope with her enormous Samsonite roller. Two individual reclining strollers, two mei tai carriers, four I-pads and we were ready to go.
We took an early afternoon flight on Thursday which gave us plenty of time to get to our Airbnb and settle in. Unfortunately, much of that time was consumed trying to meet up with an associate of our Airbnb hostess. We got a shared van from the airport to her office building but we had to wait for her to return from some errand. Then we all piled into a taxi and drove to our Airbnb in a towering condo building called the Rivage, right on Avenida Balboa facing the Pacific Ocean. I was super irritated when our guide obtained the key from a combination box on the door to let us in. So, the whole reason for the extra stop was what? I felt a little better once we got inside and saw a huge open kitchen and living area, with two good-sized bedrooms off on a hallway. The living room led out onto a balcony with a plexiglass barrier, twenty-two floors above Avenida Balboa.
By the time we'd unpacked and let the kids run around a little, it was time to start thinking about dinner. I thumbed through the lists of restaurants I'd brought and eventually settled on a place called Restaurant Jimmy. It was a very favorably reviewed parillada, or grill, in an area full of restaurants and nightlife called El Cangrejo. We decided to walk since it was our first day in a new country and we wanted to get a sense of the street atmosphere. Mei Ling put Spenser in her mei tei and we tossed the kids in the strollers. The walk was a lot longer and more arduous than we had realized, mostly thanks to the difficulty of navigating Panama City sidewalks with the strollers. Similar to a lot of Latin American cities, the curbs dropped into deep gutters which we had to traverse and the sidewalks were often torn up or blocked by parked vehicles. We soon found ourselves pushing our kids on the side of the road as cars whipped by us.
Eventually we found the street where Jimmy was supposed to be, but there was no Jimmy. We asked a local guy about the restaurant and he directed us down another street, where we found another guy who directed us again, and so on a few more times until we suspected we'd never end up at Jimmy. Eventually, however, we rounded a corner and there it was. As is virtually inevitable when we work so hard to find a restaurant, the food was pretty awful. The only dish that was enjoyable was the octopus. Grilled squid was particularly noxious, floating in oil and some pungent herbs that I was worried were present mainly to mask a lack of freshness. Monkfish was definitely not monkfish, and more reminiscent of tilapia. But the waiter was pleasant and the beer was cold, and Cleo ate French fries.
I'd been told that Uber worked well in Panama City, so we called an Uber which quickly showed up and whisked us home with little fuss. We were exhausted from the long walk to the restaurant and quickly crashed.
When I woke up, it was overcast and I took a couple of early morning photos from the balcony. The condo faced the Pacific Ocean, which was striped with evenly-spaced shallow waves. To the north was the impressive skyline of the banking district and the luxury neighborhood of Paitilla. To the south I could see the recently-constructed ring road of the Cinta Costera traversing the ocean around the historic district of Casco Viejo.
Our plan for the first full day was to go to the fish market and then Casco Viejo. As with the previous night, we decided walking was our best bet. We headed inland a couple of blocks to get a feel of the real Panama City behind the oceanside condos and then made our way south towards the fish market. As with the previous evening, it was a hard slog over high curbs, broken concrete, and blocked sidewalks without much of interest along the way except a couple of roadside breakfast stands.
We eventually made it to the fish market, which was a little bit of a disappointment given its smallish size and fairly uninspiring selection. Of course, after all the work we put into getting there we made sure we explored every corner of the place.
We were two hours early to eat at the highly-recommended fish restaurant on the second floor, so we had to be content with a few cups of ceviche from a colorful stall operated by a couple of friendly ladies. The lobster was my favorite.
From the market we headed west. Mei Ling had somehow figured out there was a Chinatown in Panama City. She has a knack for finding Chinese neighborhoods and Chinese people in the most unlikely places. I was skeptical, but sure enough after a couple of blocks we found ourselves in front of a classic Chinatown entrance gate.
After the gate, however, we didn't find a whole lot of Chinese culture. We did encounter one small Chinese supermarket where Mei Ling got to hobnob with some Chinese Panamanians and we got some snacks for the kids, who were a big hit with the locals. After that, we took in some of the local street scenery including one interesting ruined house where only the facade and balcony remained intact.
We meandered along the base of the Casco Viejo peninsula and eventually found a beautiful little square called Parque de Santa Ana filled with gnarled trees draped in Spanish moss. A charming stone gazebo occupied the center of the square. We let the kids burn off a little energy running around the square, then followed Avenida Central eastward to the touristy part of Casco Viejo.
As we walked east, the buildings around us quickly took on the well-preserved colonial appearance familiar to us from places like old San Juan, Puerto Rico and El Centro in Cartagena.
The nerve center of Casco Viejo is Plaza de la Independencia, overlooked by the lovely Catedral Metropolitana. Local vendors congregate in the center of the square to sell Panama hats and various local handicrafts to tourists. I didn't notice until just now that the tall individual photobombing us here seems to be wearing two Panama hats. Perhaps the one underneath has a hole in it. Mei Ling bought three mola handbags for Cleo and her little friends from a Kuna vendor.
After a forgettable snack at an over-rated "deli" nearby, we resumed heading east towards the water, stopping to relax in a tiny park right at the shoreline.
A little further on we found the Paseo las Bovedas esplanade which runs along the top of the seawall. We took turns going to the top and checking out the views of the ocean and the skyline, since carting all the kids and the strollers up would have been too much work.
Our next mission was a real lunch, which we accomplished at Ego y Narcisso on Plaza Simon Bolivar. This was much more successful than our earlier attempt to eat, with the highlight being a tangy and savoury grilled octopus. The police had blocked off the oceanside Avenida Eloy Alfaro for Carnaval so we made our way back towards the fish market via an inland route that was still pleasantly scenic.
We made it back to the fish market with every intention of eating at the second floor restaurant, but there were so many crowded outdoor seafood restaurants around the market it just didn't seem worth the effort. We sat ourselves down at the most lively place and had a satisfying meal of fried fish and shrimp.
After lunch we walked to the produce market a block away but it was clearly too late in the day and the market was mostly shut down. We flagged down a cab but ended up taking longer to get home than if we had walked. They had just shut down Avenida Balboa for Carnaval and we were stuck in a traffic jam for almost half an hour. Eventually we jumped out of the cab and walked the last couple of blocks back to the condo. We had some time to kill before dinner so we took the kids up to the rooftop pool, which had beautiful views over the city. Unfortunately the lighting conditions made it impossible to get crisp pictures.
For dinner we we decided to go to a restaurant called The Fish Market, which seemed to be very highly regarded on the review sites. We could see that preparations for Carnaval were in progress below us, so we decided to walk down the newly pedestrianized Avenida Balboa. Things looked like they were going to get interesting, but they hadn't really gotten started yet. The restaurant ended up being OK, although it was expat-run and clearly catered to the tourist crowd.
The next day we took an Uber to the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal. Uber works very well in Panama, but the prices are actually higher than regular cabs as long as you make sure you have negotiated a fare before you get into the taxi. Our driver was friendly and showed us the location of the main wholesale produce market in Panama City, which I hadn't found in my preparation for the trip. The Locks didn't end up being a great stop for us. The observation deck on the fourth floor was completely lined with tourists who showed no inclination to move and in fact seemed to be trying to take up as much space at the railing as they could. After about ten minutes of trying to see between the cracks and chasing after the kids we snapped a few photos of the boats over people's heads and looked for something to eat. Here again, we were disappointed. There was supposed to be a decent cafeteria with local specialties on the fourth floor but we couldn't find it. The second time we looked, one of the employees told me it no longer existed. There was a coffee shop with little sandwiches and pastries on the ground floor, and an apparent restaurant on the second floor that was closed at noon on a Saturday with no sign or explanation. After we got home, I looked up the cafeteria again and saw reviews dated after our visit, so who knows. I never did figure out what was so amazing about the locks that kept people glued to the railing for hours, but I included a couple of photos for the engineering junkies.
We easily found a cab outside the visitor's' center and instructed him to take us to the wholesale market, which was fortunately open for business despite Carnaval. The market is off of Avenida Omar Torrijos Herrera, close to the Tribunal Electoral government building. This stop was a lot more fun for us than the Canal had been. Since we'd been denied lunch at Miraflores, we quickly made our way to the covered part of the market where there were several food stalls with a selection of different soups and stews, accompanied by beans, plantains, and rice. We chose one of the more popular stalls and weren't disappointed, filling our bellies while the kids took their afternoon naps. Afterwards, we made our way around the outdoor stalls. The produce, especially the fruit, looked good but there wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. It definitely paled in comparison to the wholesale produce markets we had been to in Mexico and Colombia. One surprise was finding the Colombian fruit lulo, which is called naranjilla in Panama. We bought a bunch but unfortunately they weren't ripe, but rather hard and sour. We still ate them, of course. The passion fruits we got at the same place were much better, enormous and juicy.
Everyone was hot and sweaty after the produce market so our next stop after snacking on fruit at home was the family pool at the condo. This was another well-designed outdoor pool on a lower floor, but still with awesome views.
By the time we got back to the condo, it was already getting dark and we could see crowds starting to grow in the street below us. We made our way downstairs and found ourselves just outside a security checkpoint. The soldiers guarding the checkpoint demanded to see our passports, which was a little confusing since I doubted all the Panamanians going inside had passports. We eventually convinced them to accept our driver's licenses, and after a little patdown we got into the main Carnaval drag on Avenida Balboa. We wandered down the avenue and did some people watching and ate some street food, mostly fried fish and skewers. A little while later a small Carnaval parade kicked off and about ten floats began making their way around and around a tight course.
We could see that the scene was starting to morph from a family event into a more hardcore party atmosphere, so we decided to head back home. The soldiers at the security checkpoint wanted us to detour around the entire block to our condo instead of walking back through the entrance. Mei Ling didn't think much of that idea so she simply went from soldier to soldier until one allowed us back through the gate, much to the dismay of those who had previously forbidden it. Once we were upstairs I noticed that the thumping techno beat from the street easily reached the 22nd floor where we were staying. I needn't have worried however. We were all asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows.
For our last full day, I wanted to do something different but none of the close attractions seemed like it would be right for us. Boat trips inland towards Gamboa were complicated to arrange and I wasn't excited about having to deal with all three kids on a small boat for many hours. Isla Taboga sounded like a more pleasant boat ride, but little to do on the island except play on the beach. The kids are a little too young for watersports. Panama Viejo sounded hot and probably not a lot of fun for the kids. I wasn't sure if the Parque Natural Metropolitano was even open on a Sunday, and I couldn't determine if the walking paths would be navigable with strollers. Eventually we decided not to be ambitious and just to walk back to Casco Viejo.
First we took the kids across the Cinta Costera highway to a playground we had spotted from the condo. The kids climbed around for a little bit, but it was designed for bigger kids. We walked over to the oceanside promenade and took a few photos.
We went through the usual rigamarole with security, and identification, and body searches and made our way along Avenida Balboa to the fish market. The second floor restaurant was closed for Carnaval, but we luckily decided to try another restaurant on the ground floor. This turned out to be the best meal of the trip, with the highlight being a whole fish which had been braised in a savory escabeche. Once sated, we walked down to Casco Viejo to explore the few streets we hadn't seen the first time.
After a quick stop for frozen yogurt, we found a tiny beach for the kids to play on. It was a little gritty but they didn't seem to mind.
On the way back from the beach, we found a large open lot where some guys were painting walls for an upcoming art festival. They were very cool about explaining what they were doing and invited us to the festival, but unfortunately it would take place long after our departure.
I was carrying a drowsy Ian on my back at this point and the afternoon heat was kicking up, so we ducked into Las Clementinas for a break. This was a pretty cafe with delicious blended juices that we couldn't stop ordering.
On the way back we found a nice spot right at the shoreline with a backdrop of the Panama City skyline.
Back on Avenida Balboa, the Carnaval was getting back into full swing. One new feature was some guys strolling around in costumes with papier mache fright masks, posing for pictures for tips.
We tried almost every barbecue on the way back, and washed it down with plenty of Balboa and Atlas beer. Cleo got her face painted, and Spenser got a ride in Mei Ling's handbag.
On the last day I woke up early and was able to catch a nice view of the sun rising over the Pacific.
Our flight didn't leave until 5 PM so we took a cab back to El Cangrejo and ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant called Beirut I had spotted on the first day's adventure. It was a decent meal, but nothing out of the ordinary.
We retrieved our bags from the condo and caught another cab to the airport, having completed our first successful international trip as a family of five.