Mai Perso - Travel adventures

A Brief Lesson on Panama Hats

June 3, 2012


As we flew in and out of Cuba through Panama, we decided to make a short stop, check the Canal and get a feel for the place. See if it warrants a longer stay on a future trip.
The smells and sights of Cuba were still fresh in our minds. For a very short time, it felt good to be back on the grid. Our phones were working again and wifi can be found anywhere in Panama. Over two hundred emails have been waiting patiently for my attention as well as several un attended voicemails. The iPhone and iPad came back to life.
We settled in the Sheraton and left for a rendezvous with Carlos, the local cab driver turned tour guide, who will be showing us around town today.
We started at the Panama Canal. Coming from Holland, the concept of water lifts is obviously not new, and while the scale here is big, the water works in Holland are as if not more impressive, and started much earlier in time. I was more excited from the signs warning you of Crocodiles, then the history of the Canal.
Panama Canal, Check.

The skyline of Panama City is impressive. We have seen it a couple of times on the way to and from South America and this visit allowed for some more time to take it in.
We then asked Carlos to drop us in the old city of Panama. This area started as a slaves/canal diggers colony when the French made the first attempt to dig the canal in the early 19th century. The area is being fully restored with grants from the government helping the push. I could not stop thinking that Havana could look the same with the right investment.
We struck a conversation with Carlos, who turned out to be a very knowledgable guy, about Panama’s turnaround in the past thirty odd years. Going from a brutal dictatorship to a modern democracy. The initial pain of the transition and how leadership with a clear vision and determination, managed to turn Panama to a place with so many opportunities for the willing.

If you have been following my blogs in the past, you already know that I have a tendency to find out some very fundamental facts about places I travel to, en’ route to the location. In Panama I learned that Panama Hats come from Ecuador. There you have it. If you want a real, Fine Woven Panama Hat, go to Ecuador or order it online.
A Fine Panama Hat can take up to 40 days to weave, and can cost upward of 25,000 US$. Also, the Montecristi hats sold in Panama, are most likely not Montecristi. They are more often Montecrooky. They may be nice and they are probably from Panama, which I guess makes them genuine Panama Hats, but they don’t pass as such.
You get the gist of it. I’ll get off the subject. So now that I know all the Panamanian vital statistics, I can go and enjoy the place.
Carlos recommended a couple of places for lunch and dinner. Panama is considered one of the best south American culinary spots, and with Carlos’ help, we had no chance of enjoying it. Both restaurants were good, but neither was Panamanian. The food surely beat the bland Cuban meals, but failed to introduce us to the true Cuban Cuisine. We did see more Habaneros on the menus in Panama then in Havana, the cradle of the Habaneros you would think. Once again, as I have learned, Habaneros can be found in Havana but actually come from the Amazons.
So Panama Hats aren’t from Panama, Habaneros aren’t from Havana, and soon I may find out that BMW is a Korean brand….
After a long stroll criss crossing the restored streets of Panama’s colonial quarter and pondering what would Havana look like with similar investment, we took a quick break and drove to the Causeway. A stretch of landfill from the dugout of the Canal, that connects three island and the city of Panama. It includes touristic restaurants, duty free stores and a long promenade, facing the city skyline from across the bay. Yacht harbors along the walkway and a beautiful vista if you are into city silhouettes. Alas, as with many modern developments, the area lacks character and is a distant second attraction to the Casco Viejo, the old city of Panama.
We left Panama without a Hat and no authentic Panamanian food, but agreed to come back and explore it further some time. It seamed to have the combination of modern comfort and old heritage mixed with tropical nature, we like.
Maybe next time we can combine Panama and Costa Rica in a two week Motorcycle adventure. It should be easy to get our motorbikes over here…