In Panama City there are several places of interest worth visiting. Most of these are off the beaten path, so don’t expect to see a lot of northern Westerners. Avenida de Central is one of the main thoroughfares that runs into the heart of downtown Panama City. Traffic used to be allowed all the way into the San Felipe District near Casco Viejo, but the government wisely blocked this. Now you can cross from side-to-side and visit the dozens of shops and markets that line the streets. You’ll still need to navigate through traffic at a few places. Be careful at crossing any road. The locals are used to it. To your left and right you’ll see small, winding streets the size of alleys that disappear to other parts of the city.
After walking for several blocks, you’ll come to Santa Ana Park. Just before the park to your left you’ll encounter an unmistakable small street that drops toward the Bay. It’s lined with tiny wooden shacks on either side and runs on for about half a kilometer, ending at the statue of the Madonna in the fish market. Anything you can imagine is sold here. It’s like a transient city within the city. Some refer to it as salsipuedes—which means, get out if you can. There’s Brazilian gold, handmade sandals and hats, clothing, monkeys, parrots—it’s truly an amazing site and quite an experience just to walk past the numerous stands. If you’re interested in buying something, the vendors all use the bartering system, so don’t be shy. Behind some of the stands you might hear a commotion. Don’t be surprised to see a group of fisherman betting their morning’s earnings on a cock fight. Down at the fish market you’ll be able to view the day’s catch. This is fresh fish and safe to buy. The vendor will wrap it for you, but don’t purchase anything unless you have a place to refrigerate it. Be prepared for the smell, it can be a little overwhelming. You’ll also notice large-winged black birds lined up on tops of buildings waiting to scoop up a scrap of meat.
Once you decide to travel off the beaten path, you will undoubtedly encounter people that are obviously destitute and will beg for money. A woman with sunken eyes and three kids wrapped her spidery arms around my leg and asked for change. Give if you can. Unfortunately, you may not always have change, but try not to feel bad about that. I later observed a man who was missing most of both arms walking down the street. He had a tin can hanging from a rope around his neck. I watched as a young woman who looked poor herself drop some pennies into his tin can. At the same time about half a dozen boys and girls came running out of an alley and started jumping up and down around her, smiling and laughing. She bought a bag of pifas, a small delicious fruit, and handed one to each child. I remember thinking how that might have been the only food those kids had eaten all day.
Turn right at the fish market and continue toward the old sea wall. Now you are in the Casco Viejo section of Panama. After Panama Viejo was burned down, the village was moved to this area, the second oldest part of Panama. The National Theatre is here, and the Presidential Palace. Casco Viejo is a part of Panama City, yet, separated from it. It’s one of the oldest cities still in use on the Pacific Coast of the Americas.