Panama does not have nearly as many tourists as Costa Rica, and those that are here seem to stay in the typical Tourist places. In Panama City, I stayed in the newly renovated historic district (yeah I see the irony), an area with old classic buildings that have been restored and historical significant sites interspersed among them. As I wandered the streets my first day passing all my fellow foreigners, I had my pick of fancy coffee (you know, the ones that give you an orange peel) and fine dining establishments.
Once I ventured away from the typical attractions it seemed at if I was the only tourist in town, literally. I was walking down the pedestrian street/mall, the typical one many cities have that are closed to vehicles and pedestrians walk freely with stores and restaurants lining the sides, and realized after about 10 minutes that I was the only foreigner around.
While I haven’t found Panamanian people to be a friendly bunch, yet, being the only foreigner around isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There was a lunch stand about 15 feet long on a corner off the pedestrian street, with a couple workers selling rotisserie chicken, and while it had 3 or 4 seats, almost all of the people lining up were taking it to go. It looked good so I got in line, probably 5th at the time.
A man, standing behind the counter near the seats, and overseeing the whole operation, eyes me, and starts waiving for me to come over. I initially smile and ignore him (I’m trying to blend in after-all) but he is persistent so eventually I do. He asks me what I would like to order and then proceeds to make with care an extra large portion of chicken and patacones for me (so big, I ate it for both lunch and dinner). Evidently when you’re the only foreigner you get to skip lines and get free stuff.
From Panama City I went to Portobelo and the Isla Grande. This again was off the beaten tourist path. My instructions were clear, take one bus, get off at the supermarket in a particular town, and catch another bus to Portobelo. Claro! When I stepped off the bus at the supermarket, it was obvious this was not your regular supermarket or street corner. This had to be the busiest intersection for 50 miles.
There were street vendors everywhere. Touts selling their wares, people walking hectically all around, cars honking and people yelling. I was taking a moment to digest it and get my bearings, to determine how I would navigate this frenzy, when I hear someone yell “Portobelo”. I look up and a random man assumed (correctly) I must be going to Portobelo because of the way I looked. He was 30 feet away getting my attention and pointing to the bus that just pulled up, that I needed to take.
From Portobelo, I had to take one last bus to the boat dock and it was only then, that I saw my first other backpacker that day. Not surprising, based on where we were, we were going to the same place. The hostel was on Isla Grande, an island that has no road, just a path around the island that takes about 45 minutes to traverse.
On my first day, a local asked if I liked coconut water, I do, so I said so. He tells me he sells coconut water on the beach and I should buy some from him tomorrow. I told him I would and we chatted briefly in his broken English and my broken Spanish. Later that night I ran into him on the path and we again said hello,.
The next day, because I did a tour with my hostel mates, I didn’t go to the beach, and buy my coconut water, but I did see coconut man again early that evening, as all of the locals were outside enjoying the weekend. We chatted for a bit, him having no concern I didn’t buy the coconut water, and eventually cared enough to introduce me to his wife and kids.
As I said, I haven’t found Panamanian people overall to be very friendly; they don’t smile, they don’t say hello (so far a parrot on Isla Grande has said Hola to me more than Panamanian people), they rarely interact. However, these encounters have been unique for me traveling and give hope.