Panama City is Wabi Sabi
Years ago a designer friend of mine loaned me the book Wabi Sabi.
I read it on a trip to Mexico where I was severely sunburned the first day, hid from the rain the next four days, and fought with my (now ex) boyfriend nearly every day.
You would be correct in calling the trip imperfect.
For those who are unfamiliar with the small philosophical text called Wabi Sabi, it reads “for artists, designers, poets, and philosophers” and attempts to define the Japanese aesthetic.
This philosophy is derived from Buddhist teachings and focuses on impermanence, suffering, and emptiness.
It is filled with asymmetry and irregularity.
It is the counterbalance to the ideals of perfectionism and beauty in the Western World.
As a Western reared perfectionist borderline OCD Hollywood Regency loving twenty something
the words were lost on me.
I pondered them in the likeness of a hipster attempting to embrace originality.
And it wasn’t until years later
after living in homes that lacked boundaries with nature and frequently invited uncivilized life forms inside
in Panama City
a place which fully embodies impermanence, suffering, and emptiness, juxtaposed against a perfectly modern Western skyline
that I began to truly understand and embrace wabi sabi.
I began to see
that nothing lasts
that nothing is finished
that nothing is perfect.
beauty in the broken
beauty in the damaged
and felt perfectly imperfect.
Hugging buildings on narrow sidewalks under the eave’s protection from the rain.
Devouring ceviche brimming out of Styrofoam cups at the local wharf.
Laughing while a construction worker hosed dog doo off of my open toed shoe.
Practicing yoga in the wet grass while curious local children stopped, stared, then joined in.
Eating outdated yet delicious cuisine surrounded by an even more outdated décor.
Embracing wabi sabi
and its consistent inconsistency
I began my next adventure
knowing that my time in Costa Rica
and never would be
My Guide to the Casco Viejo in Panama City, Panama
Where exactly did I find wabi sabi? Was it among the tall towers in the commercial skyline surrounded by North American conglomerate chains? No, it was in the small charming Casco Viejo neighborhood. This historical area was built in the late 1800s but over the years became unfashionable as people headed for the lights of the big city across the water. Following this abandonment it began to badly deteriorate which you can now see in the form of many vacant dilapidated buildings covered in foliate and layers of weathered patina. It is considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is undergoing large renovations. I find it absolutely beautiful in its wreckage.
$13 for a dorm bed, $30 for a private
At times it may feel big and impersonal, and some of the rooms lack windows entirely, but the building is absolutely stunning and the location can’t be beat. A standard pancake and banana breakfast is included in the rate and served at a big communal table surrounded by shelves of books. The “castle” has plenty of other common areas with comfy modern leather couches, computers, guitars, and balconies with views of the city. The club downstairs hosts a fun party on Friday and Saturday nights which hostel guests can enter for free.
$15 for a dorm bed, $80 for a private
For budget travelers looking for a quiet, more intimate environment, the Magnolia Inn is a great option. Dorm and private rooms have AC, deluxe mattresses, and private balconies with views of the city.
$135-$175 for a room for two
This small boutique hotel is the perfect place for those seeking luxury. Each room is individually and artfully decorated and are outfitted with a flat screen tv, kitchenette, and many have views of the city. The rate includes a gourmet breakfast, bicycle rentals to explore the city, wifi, valet parking, cell phone use, and even free yoga classes on their rooftop deck. Laundry and dry cleaning is available for a fee. The downstairs restaurant serves lunch and dinner and the rooftop bar has incredible views of the old town and city.
$5 for breakfast, $5-10 for lunch
Hang out with the local expats at Super Gourmet. Come here for excellent deli sandwiches, salads, and espresso. You can also pick up gourmet grocery items here including local organic chocolate. They also sell all natural beauty products, great for trips to San Blas where you will likely be bathing in the sea. Besides who wants to use chemicals on their body ever?
$1-5 for big cups of ceviche, $8 for a fish plate
Head to the Mercado de Mariscos for a real Panamanian experience. Do not miss it!! Counters offer heaping cups of fresh ceviche, just choose your fish! The price is shockingly low and the variety is incredible. Warning: locals may stare as you will likely be the only gringo. Soak it up. Upstairs is the Mercado de Mariscos restaurant which serves big plates of fresh fish and fried patacones.
$12-30 for dinner entrees
Enjoy upscale fusion Panamanian cuisine inside this lovely bistro restaurant. Delicacies include steak with chimichurri and Caribbean seafood risotto. Or come in for their prix fixe brunch with a selection of omelets, empanadas, risottos, and parfaits for $24.
$15-30 for entrees, $10 appetizers
An expat favorite, Puerta la Tierra has nice outdoor seating in the park which is great for people watching and a chic interior. You can’t go wrong with their delicious tuna tar tar and killer steak nachos. The salads are also excellent.
Wander and marvel at the beautiful architecture
It’s unique and beautiful. Soak it up.
Shop at the outdoor markets along the waterfront
I bought a pair of hand hammered brass earrings made by a Peruvian man that friends have begged to trade for. Not a chance.
Take Yoga on the rooftop at Tantalo
Sol Yoga offers community classes on the roof at Tantalo hotel for stunning views. Join them for some sunset Vinyasa or let loose and do some yoga dance.
The Casco Viejo has great nightlife and it gets started around 4 with drink specials all over town. Get started at a corner cafe with glasses of bubbles on special.
Tour the Panama Canal
If you’ve made it all the way to Panama City, you should probably see the world wonder that is the Panama Canal, right? Why not take a tour en route to Taboga Island for such beach time? Two birds one stone. The Balboa Yacht Club takes passengers on a 30 minute ride for $6 to Taboga Island through the Panama Canal. Spend the day swimming in the water and eating at the fish shacks before returning on the Calypso Queen Ferry, aka the slow boat.
Side Trip to San Blas
If you have time, fit in a side trip to one the most incredible places I have ever been.
For more tips, the New York Times did a great feature called 36 Hours in Panama City.