Monday, June 09, 2008

Panama Wrap-up

I just have to get it out of my system. I've been procrastinating long enough, and now it's time to wrap up the Panama II narrative with a few last thoughts and pieces of travel advice. To make this quick and painless, food will be mixed in with sights and sounds.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I stayed at the Country Inn & Suites Amador, a nice little hotel that sits on the Panama Canal. Location is the main attraction. I paid $125 a night for a suite with a view of the canal. As I said before, the rooms were far from glamorous, but watching the sun set behind the iconic Bridge of the Americas was memorable, and the pool was a great respite from the humidity that had me sweating all day.

A TGI Friday's is attached to the hotel. I've never been that tourist who eats at the hotel restaurant, but fried calamari and Balboa beer hit the spot when we arrived late our first night. At least the dish was a little exotic; we don't normally do squid at the Friday's in Atlanta.

The next day, we headed down to Casco Viejo, or Casco Antiguo, depending on which specific part of the old city you're talking about. For me, one of the highlights of the colorful UNESCO World Heritage site is the Plaza de la Independencia, dominated by the 300-year-old Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.

The church is a rustic brown and has two blistering white towers flanking its entrance. You can see them all the way across the bay from Punta Paitilla, a developed section of the new city. Across the plaza sits the classic Hotel Central, a dilapidated yellow building on the verge of restoration. Leading away from the plaza to the north is Avenida Central, a bustling market street. On one side of the square is the Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum ($7 for adults), where we saw Spanish exhibitions about the history of the canal. On the top floor, we were led to a dark room and treated with a wonderful surprise: etchings by Rembrandt.

We asked the curator how she was able to get such high-profile pieces on a loan from Europe. "I can be a pain," she said.

Casco Viejo, as its name suggests, is old, but that's its charm. The government as well as private investors have long recognized that "old" doesn't need to equal "tired." Real estate signs were up everywhere. Workmen gutted old buildings, leaving their historic facades while providing a new steel skeleton on which to build new studios, offices and condos. The warm breeze coming off the bay carried the odor of wet paint and the sound of jackhammers. As was the case last time I visited, tourist police patrolled the area, and steely-eyed soldiers guarded diplomatic buildings to keep ignorant tourists from wandering down the wrong brick streets.

We stopped for lunch at a polished red building in Plaza de Simon Bolivar with "Hotel Colombia" written on its facade. Casablanca, the restaurant on the bottom floor, seemed attractive enough. The inside was stuffy - the waitress explained that the A/C didn't reach the back room where we sat. But its decor was cheery and refreshing: lime, almost neon, green pillars and rafters, orange pillows and deep brown wood furniture. A fish tank filled with oscars separated us from the rest of the dining room. My hamburger turned out to be extremely delicious and filling.

Next stop was Granclement, an gelato shop we stumbled upon before lunch. The flavor selection would've made Mr. Baskin and Mr. Robbins jealous, especially considering all were homemade according to the "traditional methods of the best French artesans." I opted for a $2.50 single scoop of the vanilla, a pretty good price. I've paid more in Atlanta. And the beans speckled throughout the ivory cream told me that this glop of goodness was worth the money.

Lastly, I visited two restaurants on the Amador Causeway, a narrow strip of land connecting the mainland with two small islands in the Amador area. The furthest one out serves as a landing pad for huge yachts. With those in view and the Panama City skyline in the background, we ate at Alberto's, a tasty Italian place. Earlier in the week, my boss and I had a simple dinner at La Parillada, a steakhouse back toward the city.

Here's a summary of GlobalAtlanta articles I've written for the work side of the trip:

-On a pending Panama free trade agreement
-On the Colon Free Zone
-Our interview with Ambassador William Eaton - Story - VIDEO
-On Georgia Tech's interest in starting logistics programs there. Another Tech story here.

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