Josh, one of my best friends from college, has been traveling to Panama City off and on for the past few years for work. This is the same friend who pretty much coached me out of the proverbial closet and into the gay-awesomeness that I am today. Obviously I skipped his lessons on how not to be a pompous prick, but we’re all allowed at least one flaw, right? Anyways, Josh was my Mr Miyagi when it came to exploring my sexuality, so I figured he’d be more than willing to coach me through our trip to Panama. But I was wrong. Apparently his time spent in Panama City wasn’t memorable, which—as he explains it—had something to do with working all day, and having no social life in the evenings.
“It’s not the safest of cities,” he said, warning me of the rampant poverty and rumors of crime swirling around his office, “aside from Casco Viejo, you probably shouldn’t go exploring on your own.”
So we took his advice and hired a local tour guide named Rudy.
Rudy from Rudy’s Tours came highly recommended from some other friends of ours who’d had an amazing time trekking through Panama City with him. He was born in Panama which gives him a strong understanding of the culture, customs, people, places, etc. and yet his years of studying and working abroad in Europe and the US have westernized him. His English is nearly perfect, and he speaks German and Italian too! And when it comes to the Panamanian government and economy at large, we found him to be a little more forgiving than Kevin from Barefoot Panama was the day before. That being said, it was really great to hear their two opposing perspectives back to back, because somewhere in between, is where the reality of life in Panama lies.
Upon request, Rudy was more than happy to satisfy our foodie cravings, and he customized a food crawl through the city for us, which started in the early morning (9am is early for vacation) at our hotel. And after some quick introductions, we were on way!
Café Coca Cola-The Oldest Cafe in Panama City
A few blocks from Casco Viejo, at one end of Avenida Central where it’s crossed by Calle C and Calle 12 Este near Santa Ana Park (Parque de Santa Ana), across from a whorehouse and next to a traffic jam; is Café Coca Cola, the oldest operating restaurant in all of Panama City. Since it first opened it’s doors in 1875, locals spanning generations of old and young, enter this casual diner to read the newspaper, talk about work, their families, and of course to eat. The menu was filled with various combo plates of eggs, rice, beans, meats, and the authentic hojaldras. Hojaldras are traditional Panamanian fried breakfast breads, like beignets, but flat like pancakes. Sometimes they’re cut and shaped into squares or rectangles, but Café Coca Cola is old school and fries them up free-form. They’re slightly sweetened, but really just meant to soak up all the delicious sauces and broken egg yolks on your plate in the morning. When people talk about breakfast being hearty and sticking to your bones, they’re talking about hojaldras….only these probably stick to your arteries as well.
I asked Rudy what the most traditional Panamanian breakfast on the menu was, and he said, “well you’ve got to get the liver and onions with an hojaldra.”
I happen to love liver so I was sold, and ordered the liver and onions plate with an hojaldra on the side.
We ordered another plate of stewed beef brisket in a tomato-based jus, which also came with a hojaldra.
And Jonathan’s mother, who is as adventurous an eater as the rest of us, but who likes to keep things simple, went with the hojaldra and fried egg.
As we sopped up the sauces on our plates with our fried dough, I couldn’t help be think about the history of Café Coca Cola, and all the famous patrons like Che Guevara and President Teddy Roosevelt they served. Decades later, I was eating from the same seasoning-caked kitchen cooktop that infused each bite with a smoky char, which I thoroughly enjoyed washing down with my “fresh squeezed orange juice” that tasted more like Sunny D.
Barrio Chino aka Panama City’s China Town
After breakfast at Café Coca Cola, we followed Rudy through the crowded alleys and side streets branching off of Avenida Central. We passed storefronts selling husks of dried rice for good luck, and lottery tickets, which the locals can’t get enough of. One vendor was selling spices in bulk; some of which Rudy said had medicinal powers like Borojo—a dark purple (almost black) paste used as a natural energy boost.
I nearly jumped out of my skin, thinking someone had just been shot, but everyone just kept going about their business as if nothing was wrong.
“Follow me,” Rudy said, and we turned a corner and found ourselves in Barrio Chino (aka China Town). To this day, I’m still not sure if someone was indeed shot in the middle of the street, or if it was just the backfire from some jalopy, but I got over it pretty quickly.
Panama City’s China Town is small, like two or three blocks that zigzag their way through the heart of a very authentic Panamanian neighborhood. Thanks to the Panama Canal, Panama is more of a melting pot at times than the US, and Barrio Chino is just one example of the country’s diversity.
Rudy took us to an interesting shop, called Ventas de Aves, which translates to Poultry Sales. The place was tiny and lined from wall-to-wall with cages of full-grown chickens, squab, ducks, pigeons, turkeys, geese, and a few other birds I didn’t even know you could eat. The breeds were separated and crammed into cages, and the place smelled like poop among other things.
According to Rudy, this is one of the most popular shops in China Town, and where all the local Chinese procure their poultry. I asked a few questions and the clerk answered me in Spanish, which Rudy translated…needless to say, we didn’t procure any poultry that day.
After passing a few more shops selling pots, pans, fireworks, and knock-off Hello Kitty crap (just like any other China Town in the world, right?), we were out of Barrio Chino and back into Panama City where everyone’s skin-tone seemed to fade a little darker. The border between China Town and the surrounding neighborhood was distinct, and Rudy said there’s very little mixing between the Chinese and everyone else in Panama, “they pretty much keep to themselves,” he said, and then continued, “not like the Italians!”
Mercado San Felipe Neri (Public Market)
From China Town we made our way to Mercado San Felipe Neri, which is the giant covered public meat and produce market built in an old train station between Casco Viejo and the Fish Market a few blocks away. The market was moved here from a less sanitary location along the water back in 2006. Personally, I can’t imagine the market being dirtier than it is, but I think we (Americans) are a little too reliant on our Purell at times, and I figured the bacteria and germs would give me character.
If you can, definitely plan on walking through the different areas of the public market. The first, and larger, of the rooms we walked through was filled with butchers preparing various types of meat. We saw severed heads staring at us as we passed.
The sight of men and women hacking away at hanging carcasses, as buyers for restaurants and locals discussed price and quality was pretty cool. Every culture does this differently, and it was interesting to witness it in Panama.
The most interesting thing I noticed was a hen butterflied on a table with it’s insides exposed for us to see. I took a closer look, and could see the yolks of immature eggs. Some were tiny and just starting out, and others looked like they would have been laid if the chicken hadn’t been axed already.
After a few minutes of walking around the meat room, the musty smell of rancid meat had dissipated. Unfortunately that was about the same time I wished I hadn’t worn my Chaco sandals, because I couldn’t help but feel like dirty water, animal juices, and blood (lots of it) was swishing around between my toes.
The second largest room was a lot more tame and reminded me of some yuppie farmers’ market in San Francisco. Piled high were the freshest of fruits and vegetables from the local farms.
And next to this room is the prepared foods area where spices and grains are sold in bulk. This is also where we stopped at a juice stand to try some of the borojo elixir Rudy had pointed out on the street earlier. The juice was sweet and delicious. It reminded me of Acai Berry juice, and Rudy said the locals drink it for energy. I definitely was awake for the next few hours, but I can’t say I felt a jolt or burst of vitality after downing it.
As we left the market and headed towards our next destination, we passed some dumpsters covered in vultures picking at discarded raw meat trimmings and rotten produce; the sight of which seemed like something I’d seen in some animated Disney movie…only real vultures are a lot scarier in person!