Rene emails you personally and sets you up on a tour with one of his 4 drivers/cars. Since I only had a few hours again I opted to visit the Canal and around the city. Getting to the countryside takes ~2 hours from the airport area, which I didn’t leave enough time for but will definitely prioritize on my next visit.
For $220 including airport transportation both ways, Nicolas was my personal driver and tour guide for the day. He spoke fluent English and happily answered my hundreds of questions about his home, “on-record.” Much of our conversation revolved around the history of the Panama Canal, but I was particularly interested in how the country has been affected by having it back. Here’s what I found:
- There used to be 21 US military bases around Panama, but since 1991 they have no army, only police. Panama now lets their allies carry the military burden.
- Casco Viejo arguably the neighborhood most affected by gentrification — locals being forced out yet buildings not repaired because owners know investors will scoop them as-is.
- Government awarding citizenship to anyone investing $10k or more in property or business — NO property restrictions.
- Tourism major current business opp as not many companies exist (talking to you, entrepreneurs) — industry is tax exempt for 20 years.
- Government able to build out social programs for the first time in history. Programs include $60/month to students for education and $120/month to seniors 65+ without insurance for medical expenses.
We first ventured to the Panama Canal Miraflores (translation: watching flowers) Locks, where they are building a second, wider waterway which is set to open in 2016 with higher tolls. The new waterway is projected to produce more than $1 billion annually for Panama – in addition to current canal’s newfound income of $476 million.
These are serious times of change for this long-oppressed country.
We passed through Balboa Town, the old American military base, La Catedral, which is currently campaigning for restoration:
The Church of San Jose to see the Golden Altar:
And a bit to my disappointment landed for our last stop in back Casco Viejo where I dined and danced a few nights before. I whipped out enough Spanish to negotiate some trinkets with the street vendors before we called it a day.
Some other fun facts Nicolas let me in on:
- Main exports: coffee, shrimp, oranges, pineapple, watermelon, seafood.
- Most dangerous neighborhood: Chorillo — at night the police don’t even patrol here because of violent gang activity. It’s on the way into Casco Viejo from the heart of the city, so be extra-aware of your surroundings in the area. Red-brick means you’ve hit the historic district.
- Richest area: Punta Pacifica — also home of the tallest building, 76 stories high.
- Best place for bars/restaurants: outside Casco Viejo, Uruguay St. in downtown.
- Touristy area: Pacific Coast
The tour with YourManinPanama.com was a great way to maximize my short time and gain a ton of local insight from to Rene and his crew.