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On Balboa's Path in Panama

Written by
Francisco Gonzalez
October 27, 2021
Exploring Panama City's history & cuisine, we paid homage to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean, by crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1513. 

After visiting the Panama Canal and the former American Canal Zone on Sunday, we woke up on Monday morning, only to discover Chris had awakened quite earlier than us. It was Monday, after all, and he had to work. But before work, he went for a bike ride. I don’t want to ask how many miles. When he returned, he cooked us a feast for breakfast. This was no Chinese breakfast. It was more in line with what I’d expect from a Panamanian. What a host! Thank you Chris!

After he went on his way to work, I actually needed to get some coffee and I wanted to check out the walkways below his apartment and across the street. So first, Marshall and I stopped into the Restaurante Boulevard Balboa -- an old fashioned diner -- that has been here since 1958! It must be good. We sat at the bar and I ordered a coffee. If Chris had not made us such a nice breakfast, this would have also been a fine spot to eat. It just looked like I stepped into 1958, with added modern conveniences like a credit card machine.

After the coffee, we crossed Avenida Balboa and took some photos next to giant colorful letters that spell out “PANAMA.” We then walked a block or two down the walkway to get a look at a very large statue of Vasco Nunez de Balboa, a Spanish explorer and conquistador, who first reached the New World in the year 1500, at around the age of 25 years old. However, Balboa is best known for being the first to cross the Isthmus of Panama, which he did in 1513, to get a view of the Pacific Ocean. If only he had a canal!

It’s hard to understate Balboa’s importance. He was the first European to cross the Atlantic and get a view of the Pacific Ocean. I wonder what he must have thought. (Maybe I should read something he might have written!) Balboa also governed some parts of the Spanish territory in the New World. It was nice to pay him homage and wonderful to see that Panama honors him with a statue in a very prominent location, along a major road in Panama City also named for him.

From here, we took an Uber to an area that Marshall was especially interested in seeing. While his grandfather was here, serving in the U.S. Air Force in the 1940s, he frequented Club Atlantis, of which Marshall also had some photographs of him at. The problem is that Club Atlantis doesn’t exist today and probably has not for some time. But Marshall came prepared with the general neighborhood and intersection where it is located -- Marshall had done his research and, ahead of the trip, had found some old maps of Panama City from that time period.

Of course now this meant we were wandering into an old part of the city and old parts of cities often are not the best parts of cities today. At the intersection was a very small building that was a police station. Our Uber driver seemed confused when we asked him to drop us off at the police station. “Ok,” he muttered. Then he cautioned us to be careful in this area. Oh boy.

We wandered around the intersection for about 10 minutes trying to figure out which side of the road Club Atlantis was on. We then came to the conclusion the building must have been torn down and that the little small building (not much bigger than a one or two bedroom house) that was the police station must have been built on top of it. Then Marshall continued describing Club Atlantis to me. It was very prestigious, he said. Very prestigious? That doesn’t sound like the kind of building that would be just torn down. Then I looked at a building much further back behind the police station. It was large. And today, it was a bingo hall.

“Marshall, let me see that map,” I said. On that map, the building that existed in the 1940s looked a bit further back from the intersection. I looked back up at the large building that was the bingo hall. “Marshall, I think that might be the building that was Club Atlantis. I mean that is an old building and they probably turned it into that bingo hall.”

We weren’t entirely sure but we walked in that direction and walked through the open gate of a chain-linked fence and up to the front of the building. The doors to the building were wide open and even from 30 feet away we could tell it was large inside. At this point, a man who looked like some kind of security guard walked out. I talked to him in Spanish and asked him if this was Club Atlantis.

He chuckled and said, “No, this is a bingo hall,” (or something of the sort). I then said, “yes I can see that, but before it was a bingo hall, was it Club Atlantis?” He told me it was, but that was many years ago. I repeated this to Marshall in English. We smiled in jubilation. I then told the security guard that my friend’s grandfather was in the U.S. military 75 years ago and used to come to Club Atlantis. Now, he understood. He was very fascinated by this.

I reminded Marshall, “your grandfather walked right through these doors and had a great time with his friends here, when he was about your age.”

Once again, we had tracked down some American history right here in Panama. Marshall’s research was not in vain and our curiosity helped us come to the front doors of this old building, doors which his grandfather once walked through. Chris had previously told us that in Panama there isn’t too much concern for marking historical landmarks, and this place wasn’t marked at all. But it is certainly a piece of history still standing today - barely. Who knows how much longer it will be. We didn’t quite step inside, but we took some photos, thanked the man, and then got on our way.

We called an Uber and made our way back to Casco Viejo, the historic part of the city that at least is historically maintained in some way, if not fully what historic landmarks in other cities might be. But it is really a charming part of the city.

We found a lunch spot at a place called Casa Blanca, which had a few photos on the wall of the actors from that iconic film. This restaurant is located in a building marked “The Colombia Hotel.” I don’t think it is a hotel today but I didn’t look further into it. Chris told us later that the building was somewhat recently revitalized. We enjoyed our lunch, which easily could have been a dinner for the size of it! One of the managers that worked there was a beautiful young woman who told us she was from Venezuela and had just moved here five years ago. This reminds me that we continued to meet people in Panama who were from other places, including quite a few from Venezuela, where people continue to flee from.

On our first day in Panama, we had tried to visit another historic hotel, but it was closed due to COVID. Marshall had found out it is in the process of reopening soon, but on the days we were here it was closed. It was also a place his grandfather had once mentioned to him and wrote about. But parked near the hotel we saw a classic car and we took photos with it on our first day here. That’s when a man told us there was some kind of classic car museum around the corner. Now that we had more time, we decided to go see if there was a museum that we could visit.

What we found was a restaurant called Casa Catedral that was filled with classic cars, including a BMW that Marshall’s grandfather once drove right here in Panama (not the same exact car we don’t think, but the same model). The cars were situated all around the table. It reminded us, in some ways, of a place in Orlando called “M Lounge.” But this was inside a building that looked like a ruin. We were kind of disappointed we didn’t previously know it was a restaurant because we might have eaten here instead (not because we didn’t like Casa Blanca, we thought that place was great, but this place was iconic!) It was the middle of the afternoon, but we thought this place deserved sitting down and having a cocktail at, so we did.

Around that time, another brief afternoon storm produced some rain. But it gave the place a nice ambience. It was the middle of the afternoon so there were very few patrons, but this allowed us to talk to the staff. There were some old photographs of Panama City framed on the walls and that’s when Marshall showed our waiter, and then the manager, some of the old photographs his grandfather had taken in Panama in the 1940s. They were so intrigued by this that they asked Marshall to send them the photos. Who knows, those photos may end up on these walls. Wouldn’t that be something?

Our waiter had only been working here for five days and the manager had only taken over a few weeks earlier. After we finished our drinks and were close to departing, the manager took us upstairs to show us some old phonographs, typewriters, and other antiques. This place was made for Marshall, who loves to relish in these antiques (they had the same old phonograph that he recently bought last year -- something that predates the record players our parents had). Upstairs is an area to host larger groups and they also have a small stage where they occasionally have musical acts. What a place!

The rain had stopped and we departed Casa Catedral and walked to the end of the Casco Viejo to an area that is named the Plaza of France. This commemorates not only the sacrifice the French made here (trying to build the canal before the Americans were successful) but there were also some inscriptions honoring many of the people involved during the American effort as well. From there we walked some streets and once again passed by the Habano cigar lounge we had visited on our first day. We thought we might pick up some more cigars. It was a little past 5:00pm and the same group of guys were there that we saw on Saturday. They remembered us. We said we were going to pick up some cigars and once we bought them, we said, “We can’t smoke these here right?”

Well, we were friends now. They said, “ahh, it’s ok, you guys can smoke those here.” They were closing in 40 minutes and the local police were not quite nearby. Well, they ended up letting us stay a little past closing and we had some great conversations.

The Cuban-born man we met here, who had lived in a few places, and now had been in Panama for about the last 20 years, got into some great conversations with us about the Panama Canal, including the new part of the canal, of which the construction company he owns was part of building. Marshall couldn’t help but ask him what he thought of the canal being turned over from the United States to Panama. That’s when he went on and on about what the United States did for Panama.

He then added some more opinions. “I’ve been all around the world,” he said. “And let me tell you: there is only one country that is greater than all the rest and it’s not even close.” He paused. “The United States of America!” He then told us how concerned he is for what’s going on in the U.S. right now politically but added, “If the United States was under attack, I would enlist to go fight for the United States.”

He told us how his family from Cuba found safe haven in the U.S. some years ago and the opportunities that our country, and our country alone, gave them. I loved this guy! It turns out his family was from the same part of Cuba that my grandfather grew up in - Pinar del Rio. Perhaps we are related. We certainly share some of the same enthusiasm for liberty.

After we finished our Cuban cigars, we took an Uber out to Albrook Mall to run a quick errand. Marshall told our Uber driver, who spoke great English, about his grandfather being here. At that moment, we passed a national police station that was huge. The driver pointed at it and said: that building right there was the terminal for Albrook when your grandfather served here. Marshall had been looking for that building but we must not have had that question for Chris when we first drove by it. Another piece of Swanson family history -- and American history. Just like that. After our visit to Albrook Mall -- which was REALLY HUGE, including the largest bus terminal in the country -- we called another Uber and met Chris back at his apartment building.

Chris then drove us to El Trapiche restaurant, also in the San Francisco area of the city, or somewhere near it, I believe. This was a true authentic Panamanian meal. I had the Panamania Fiesta plate which gave me a little taste of a lot of different types of Panamanian food. I highly recommend it. From there, we went back home and called it a night.

I wanted to see the San Blas Islands the next day and so I had a tour company driver coming to pick me up at 5:00 AM. Chris had to work on Tuesday and 5:00 AM is probably a little too early for Marshall, plus he had some other history he wanted to track down in the city. So our final day in Panama would mostly be our own side adventures. More about that in the next post.

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