You know that moment in the movie when the protagonist is at her wits’ end with day-to-day life and decides to shirk responsibility to “find herself”? That was me in early 2018. I decided to take a trip, but it needed to be more meaningful than my usual vacations. It’s corny, but I was definitely searching for an “eat, pray, love” moment. I mulled over a few destinations, but ultimately decided to spend a month in Panama City, Panama.
I loved every minute in Panama City. Of course, I indulged in the typical tourist attractions like visiting the Panama Canal, the Amador Causeway, the massive nativities located in a few of the local churches (there are a lot of churches), and buying a Panamanian hat. These were all fun, but what made my trip really special was where I lived. I found housing at a home-stay that ended up being more like a hostel. I loved it! My roommates varied between local college students, fellow short-term travelers, and people clearly going through a midlife crisis. There was never a dull moment.
My days were filled with exploring neighborhoods, eating out way too much, visiting museums, bar hopping, and taking daily Spanish classes. Continuing my Spanish lessons was one of the main reasons I went to Panama and the classes were great. They were obviously essential in helping me communicate, but they also provided a built-in group of friends. My school , Casco Antiguo Spanish School, was located in the historic Casco Antiguo neighborhood, so that’s where I spent the majority of my time.
This section of Panama City is filled with cool bars, lovely cafes, museums, trendy hotels, and enough hat shops to outfit the entire country. It’s also extremely gentrified. The contrast between the beautifully bright buildings and cobblestone streets of Casco Antiguo (also known as Casco Viejo) and the decrepit buildings in the adjacent neighborhood is extremely stark. There’s literally a sign with “STOP THE GENTRIFICATION” in huge red letters, just in case you somehow missed it.
One of the main reasons I chose Panama is because there are so many black Panamanians. I’m aware that I’ll always stand out when I’m in a different country, but I wanted to be someplace where my skin wasn’t the primary reason I wasn’t blending in. I honestly didn’t experience any racism in Panama, but I know it exists. It’s pretty clear who is being affected most by the gentrification in the country.
As I mentioned earlier, I ate out a lot in Panama. While I enjoyed the routine of cooking with my homestay/hostel housemates, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed exploring the local food scene even more. My favorite restaurant was Dondé Jose. This restaurant is just beyond cool. It’s one of those places that’s completely unmarked from the outside, so you just have to know that it’s there.
Chef José Carles’ 16-seat eatery boasts an impressive multi-course dinner of Panamanian food and it’s just *chef’s kiss.* This was an experience. It’s extremely intimate, the food is fantastic, the cocktails are great and if you sit at the Chef’s table, you get the backstory behind every dish by Chef Carles himself. Is it cheap? No! Is it worth it? Yes!
If you don’t want to drop a lot of bread on bread (see what I did there?), there are plenty of affordable options. I had many a delicious taco at Tacos La Neta and fantastic ice cream at Granclement Ice Cream. Also, Chef Carles has a cheaper restaurant, Fonda Lo Que Hay, that operates more like a test kitchen. The menu changes constantly, but the level of creativity with the dishes and the insane flavor is consistent.
When I return to Panama City, I’ll definitely explore the surrounding areas a more. As I mentioned, I spent a lot of time in Casco Antiguo and downtown. I did manage to make it to a couple of beaches, but I didn’t visit the San Blas islands. Taking Spanish classes was definitely the best decision I made. The school really fosters a community that encourages you to go out into the city and engage in an impactful way.
So, did I have my “eat, pray, love” moment? Well, we’ve established that I definitely covered the “eat” portion, I had many peaceful moments of prayer and I loved every minute of my trip. Goal achieved.
By Bridget Gales, Washington D.C
Follow Brigdet’s food blog, BlackGirlsEatDC