Monday, September 04, 2023


The year was 1996. I was in Panama with a group of 22 tourists, mostly Brits but some Aussies and Kiwis too, and two driver/guides and their orange-and-white overland truck. There were supposed to be 23 tourists, but one had disembarked in Belize to spend her life there (she came back after I left).

Most of the group was on an expedition from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, but I was just testing the waters for a month by joining in Antigua, Guatemala, and disembarking in Panama City.

This sort of rough travel was new to me in 1996, and I struggled with the lack of privacy, sleeping in tents, the infrequent opportunities for warm showers, and the slow pace of getting so many people moving, stopping for meals, putting up camp and breaking it down. I remember signing off in Managua and meeting the group again in San Jose. I couldn’t hack four weeks of constant company back then. I probably couldn’t now, but I did pull it off for eight weeks in 1998 on the Kathmandu to Damascus trip.

Anyway, we cruised into Panama City after a night spent camping in a muddy softball field (I slept in the dugout), and I remember the drivers telling us we’d have to unload fast. Our hotel was in an old part of town with nowhere to park the truck, and they’d have to go store it somewhere safe.

We pulled up on the edge of the historic district, unloaded our bags quickly, and dragged them into the old hotel. It was ramshackle but colonial and mildly pleasing in its way, but what we quickly learned was that while we were on the edge of Casco Viejo, we weren’t anywhere good.

My friend Lynne went to drop off her laundry and was told “go left you OK go right you die!” That seemed a bit startling and we weren’t sure we believed it until later when the police insisted on escorting everyone to the nearest bar. And then everyone else was told similar things, and we all got grumpy about being put up in this hotel when there were perfectly fine hotels a few miles away.

1996 was a long, long time ago, and I wondered today as I wandered the streets of Casco Viego if we had all overreacted after being pissy from the night in the mud. I tried to find the hotel we’d stayed at (I’m in a much more sensible location now, but we didn’t have Google Maps or TripAdvisor back then), and I kept sending Lynne photos.

“Does this look familiar? How about this?”

At one point, I was sure I’d found it. I remembered noting at the time how if I got lost, I just had to remember it was like where I lived at home, on 13th and B. But today I went to 13th and B, and that didn’t look familiar.

As Lynne wrote back with the few tidbits she recalled, I started to remember it as 12th and A, one block off in each direction. I went there and was sure I’d found it—but then Lynne remembered there’d been a view from the roof.

I dug around a bit more and found a hotel across the street with a roof view, located some inside photos, and that was it! I went back to ask if I could go in, and the hotel was vacant. Still, it was nice to have found it, though it looked completely different on the outside. Oh, and the neighborhood was still appalling, so we didn’t overreact in 1996. But the rest of Casco Viejo was lovely! I’ll post photos of that and my day in Panama City tomorrow.

Renovated...but cerrado

The top is a photo I took from the hotel roof in 1996.
The bottom is a recent(ish) photo from the same roof.

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