Day 10 (March 13):
Panama City, Panama
La Exposición. It’s one of the many barrios (neighborhoods) in Panama City. Together with the barrio of 5 de Mayo, La Exposición rests in the lesser developed district in between the historic Casco Viejo and downtown Panama City. The TripAdvisor reviews for the hotels in the area warn travelers to stay away. “It’s a bad neighborhood!” “Prostitutes frequent the streets and police carry big guns. Stay away!” "Be sure to take a taxi at night. There are shady characters all around…even for Central America.” Sure, at first glance La Exposición can be unsettling. There are a significant amount of buildings in disrepair, the streets are beat up, and there is an obvious presence of “less legal” business on low traffic roads late at night. But, this is the reality of Panama City…of any city. In between the tourist hub of Casco Viejo and the endless strips of international banks in the downtown district, La Exposición’s hard hitting atmosphere is a symbol of the tough life, hard work, and lack of access to financial stability faced by many Panamanians. If you really take the time to look around you will find that this and other nearby barrios are ‘real’. They don’t try to hide their flaws with fresh coats of paint…they aren’t steamrolling their troubled pasts through historic renovations. If you want to get in touch with everyday life in the city you need to spend time in areas like La Exposición.
Stroll down Avenida Arosemena at 11 a.m. and really take the time to look at the surroundings…the people. You will discover a street lined with brightly colored kioskos (food carts). Their owners situate folding tables and plastic chairs around their stalls, inviting hungry passersby to grab some great, home cooked food that’s ridiculously cheap (a plate piled with grilled chicken, lentils and rice, patacones, and a drink will cost you about $3.50). The smells of asados (bbq) being prepared for the upcoming lunch rush will send your senses into overdrive as smoke bellows out of the large, metal grills that belong to each kiosko. Come lunch time each table will be filled with a mix of customers who share boisterous stories and joyful laughter with new friends while they enjoy their meals together.
Next, make your way over to the Plaza de 5 de Mayo and venture down Avenida B. Turning the corner you will first be hit with the blasting sounds of Reggaeton and Merengue. Follow the upbeat music through Avenida B and you will find a long row of barbarías (barbershops). These small businesses are pieced together with scraps of metal and wood to form 3-sided stalls. Their open fronts face the sidewalk so that the barbers can interact with one another while also chatting with the foot traffic. The layout embraces an open environment…an all-out hair cutting spectacle. Each barbaría is decorated with a unique blend of spray paint graffiti and Panamanian urban icons. Large wooden signs display trendy names like “Ghettostyles” and “Gangster Cuts”. At midday this area is a hub for social interaction as every chair on the strip is filled with young Panamanians looking to get the freshest cuts. It’s here that you will find the latest trends in hair styles being created; each barber looking to one up his competition. Continue down Avenida B and the upbeat sounds of Reggaeton, Merengue and street chatter will eventually fade into the background. Keep wandering the streets of these barrios and you will stumble upon countless cultural gems that are hidden within Panama City, like the strips of kioskos and barbarías. You will miss the true beauty of the city—any city—if you only listen to the negativity created by outsiders. To truly feel everyday life on the street—to experience it—you must dive into these districts and form your own opinions.