Panama City by Caitlyn Costa

When we flew across the Caribbean sea into Panama City, I already felt a change in the air. I could smell the ocean and the diesel fumes pumping out of cabs, I could feel the heat radiating from the Tropics sun; we were clearly on an island, in a new country. We spent the first night of our study abroad trip in the capital of Panama, staying in a hotel room with a sputtering air conditioning unit (and we were fortunate for even that). Panama City is home to 1.5 million people, just under half the entire country’s population. It is a bustling metropolis on the Pacific ocean side, with the Panama canal flowing through. That first night, our group walked less than five blocks to the Pacific to admire the downtown skyline fitted against the water. I was tallying the similarities and differences I noticed between Panamanian and American cultures. Panama City is dotted with colonial-era landmarks, fruit and vegetable stands line the streets, cafes selling loaves of bread and pastries in myriad shapes can be found at every corner, and huge supermarkets boasting cheap prices take up half a city block. Sometimes there are sidewalks, but more often you find yourself weaving through litter and puddles against the storefronts. On the way from the airport, we passed by the City Hall, where a large structure of the word “democracia” stands, and two blocks from our hotel in a small park is a statue of two women holding hands; their names, “Independencia y Libertad,” is embossed underneath the figures. The colonial legacy of Panama is evident in its architecture, but the fight for independence from Spain, and later Columbia, appears to be a main facet of Panamanian culture and national pride today. In the old historic city, Casco Viejo, the streets are narrow and cobblestoned, reminding me much of my travels to Portugal and Spain. Spanish influence in the dominance of Catholicism is demonstrated through the Archcathedral Basilica of Santa María la Antigua, a catholic church originally built in 1688 and intricately designed, complete with huge stained glass windows, a domed roof, and rich gold overlay inside. With the city being founded back in the 1600s, Casco Viejo served as a reminder of how young a nation the United States is. There is so much history in the old city, and as a UNESCO world heritage site, it has largely been preserved. When we learned about the preservation of the old buildings and all associated guidelines for alteration and construction, I immediately thought of Charleston. Walking through the colorful buildings and little side streets of Panama City, I better understand the importance of historic preservation and how European colonization influenced Central American ideology and architecture.

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