I was driving through the neighborhood the other day, and it hit me how much things have changed in Panama City over the past few years. I remember visiting Panama back in 2001, when I first married my wife. It was my first time in this country. I remember thinking there’s no way I could move to Panama. It was just too third world back then. In the past 12 years, I’ve seen this country grow by leaps and bounds. I’m living here full time now, and every day this place gets more modern and more user-friendly.
I started thinking about this as I drove over the brand new road that leads through Panama Viejo, the ruins of old Panama. It used to be a broken street that led past the ruins and through a neighborhood where traffic was always lined up, moving at a turtle’s pace. I hated driving through the area and opted to pay the $1.40 each way for the Corredor Sur toll highway. Now, I find it much faster to drive the new road (and much cheaper too).
Not only is the road much more stress-free and a lot cleaner, it’s also nice to see that the city has invested money in playgrounds for some of the neighborhoods along this road. I’m sure it has a lot to do with the government wanting the roadside scenery to look a little nicer, but who cares, as long as the kids benefit, it’s great.
Something else that I was stunned and happy to see, was the inclusion of handicap markings on the sidewalks. I’ve seen a lot of questions, either in the expat blogs, or by direct email, about whether or not Panama City and the interior towns, are handicap accessible. Traditionally, Panama City has not been a good place to walk or ride a bike due to the horrible condition of the sidewalks, and using a wheelchair would almost be out of the question. Some towns, like Las Tablas for example, have ramps at some of the sidewalks and handicap signs spread out around town. It looks as if Panama City is realizing the need for these improvements and has begun working on the problem.
Another improvement is the addition of street signs in some parts of the city. When I first moved here, there were almost no signs anywhere. Everyone just seemed to know the streets. Tumba Muerto (dead tomb) is a major street here, and Transistmica, Calle 50, Via España, and Via Porras. Streets like these were just well known, but it would be hard to find signage anywhere. Being a small city, finding your way around isn’t difficult once you convince yourself to get out and just do it, but you’re more likely to learn the streets by remembering which KFC is on it than you are by learning the street names.
Again, things are changing. Where I’m currently living, an area called Chanis, cement, hand-painted street signs have begun to pop up all over the place. This is great. Especially for the poor delivery guys who have to zip up and down the neighborhood streets on motorbike. I had one stop in front of my house the other night when I was unloading groceries from my car. He asked me which street was 3rd street. I had no idea. I knew we were on 5th, but where the heck was 3rd? You’d think it’d be two streets away. Not in my neighborhood. Someone was getting a cold pizza that night that’s for sure.
So these street signs are sure to be very helpful. One more great addition is the neighborhood signs. Although most of them, at least in my area, look to be made of hard plastic, it’s nice to see these signs up.
Panama is strange in the way that it’s such a small place, and neighborhoods change so quickly. For example, Wellington, Florida, is a fairly large town. Wellington has tons of small subdivisions, but it’s all Wellington. Here, you can be in Obarrio, turn down a side street and not realize you’re in Marbella, travel a few more streets away and you’re in Bella Vista, and if you wrap back around you’ll find yourself in El Cangrejo. It’s almost like every street is its own neighborhood.
I just mentioned how Panama City has never really been a walking town. It’s not. Not yet anyway. It’s definitely not Chicago or New York City, where you get out and just hoof it, knowing you can get where you’re going by foot, or worst case scenario, by taxi. In Panama City, things are much more spread out. It’s unlikely that you’ll set out on foot and just happen to bump into something to do. You need to know where you’re going.
One of my favorite things about Chicago was the fact that I could just get out and go. I didn’t really have to have a plan. There was always something to do. If you just kept walking in one direction, especially down Michigan Avenue, you were bound to find some sort of entertainment. It’s not like that here.
Plus, the sidewalks are horrible. Most are cracked and overrun by trees that have grown beneath the cement. The city has done a great job of cleaning up the parking situation. It used to be that cars would park on the sidewalks too, causing pedestrians to have to dangerously make their way out onto the street to get around them. Now, the cops are ticketing people and having cars towed.
Another reason Panama City is not the greatest place for walking, is the insane amount of dog poop you find everywhere.
It seems that Panama City is well aware of this issue too and has begun to do what they can to clean it up. I was shocked when I saw the following signs going up around town:
Is Panama third world? Not really. Not anymore. Sure, some towns out in the interior definitely qualify as third world, but Panama City is probably a lot more advanced than many towns in the great ol’ U.S. of A. And it’s getting better every day.
In Aguadulce, a little sweet water town right off the Pan-American Highway, you can sit at the town center, right in front of the church, under the shade of a cozy little gazebo and use WIFI. The town is wired up. How’s that for third world?
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