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On How Places Change: Panama City

I violated the Laws of the Three Nothings and found myself on the something train.

Panama City Hotel
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PANAMA CITY, Panama- Travel provides nothing if not a lens through which to view the passing of time. Places change constantly, with one landscape becoming another just to become another … ages pile on top of ages, ever churning in the celestial soup of ungraspable time.

You change constantly, with each experience, relationship, and obsession leading you on to other experiences, relationships, obsessions … Your lifestyle changes, your outlooks change, your values change as you metamorph from one person into another into another.

The paradox of change is that, while we all know it’s happening, we simply can’t observe it.

Until we return.

An entire era of change has passed over Panama City since I was last here a little over 16 years ago. Thickets of skyscrapers sprung up from barren lots, slums became new trendy districts, boulevards were etched onto land reclaimed from the sea, casinos popped up everywhere, an unchecked scourge of TGI Friday’s covered the land, and the old city was transformed from a defunct, falling apart pit of poverty to an extremely posh and prohibitively expensive tourist zone with cuisine from everywhere in the world except the country it’s in (the true sign of class and status anywhere). And those painted old busses that I once enjoyed riding on through the city are now on the verge of going extinct — they’ve become a preemptive relic whose pieces are now displayed in tourist restaurants.

Ave Espana in Panama City in December, 2007

Ave Espana in Panama City in December, 2007

Panama City

The same shot in 2024.

I walked through the streets of Panama City and simply marveled at the changes. But I’m not sure why I was so surprised … I was based in China for years, I literally watched as ancient villages were wiped off the map and new cities were created in their place from scratch. I know how time does its thing on places. But something about the change here caught me a little differently.

I soon recognized that it wasn’t the place whose change I was marveling at, but my own.

***
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There was some reason why I was drawn to that broken down, abandoned hotel. I walked by it and it instantly caught my attention. I stopped and just looked at it for a moment. Was it the unusual towers at its corners? Was it the odd storybook-esque paint job and decor? Was it something about the name, Pension Las Torres?

Pension Los Torres

Pension Los Torres in 2024

There were for sale signs on its exterior and electric fencing was put up to keep out the trespassers and squatters. It appeared to have been years since this hotel last housed any travelers …

And the area around the hotel was equally barren. There weren’t really any restaurants, few open shops, hardly anyone was walking in the streets; there was nowhere to go and nothing to really do. To the south was a busy, fully of life, working class / poor area. To the north was the booming financial district. Calidonia was as dead as the Pension Las Torres.

“It didn’t use to be like that,” a friend recollected as he was giving me a lift back to my hotel. “This used to be the center of the city, but then it moved farther up the coast. Over time, the center of the city kept moving north.”

Later on, an Uber driver told me that when the Americans invaded in 1989 the soldiers brought the city to a stand still by walking through the streets here. If they tried to pull that today I’m not sure how many people would even notice … the place isn’t an urban dead zone but it’s getting there.

My hotel was just down the street from the now defunct Pension Las Torres, and there was just something about this area that felt like the vertigo that you get when waking up from one of those visceral dreams where you can’t figure out if it was based on actual memory or not.

I just felt like I’d been here before. And as I browsed through some of photos from my travels in Panama at the end of 2007 I realized why: it’s because I was.

I had taken an entire collection of photographs of the Pension Las Torres, as this was where I stayed. I remember the place being full of travelers — backpackers from all over the world, cash-strapped Central Americans on business trips, and that sketchy assortment of locals who for some reason are holed up in a cheap hotel. I could remember the stairwell leading to the top floor, the creaky wooden floors, the bathroom at the end of the hallway. I could remember trying to figure out how to get into the towers and the tickets that they would give us at reception to get breakfast at the conjoined restaurant. I can remember that the breakfast itself was served from a stainless steel bar — probably the same one that I could still see in there today through a fence that had been painted bright orange — and I would get a hard boiled egg and some fried dough and plantains.

Pension Las Torres in 2007

Pension Las Torres in December, 2007

Pension Las Torres in 2007

Pension Las Torres in December, 2007.

Pension Las Torres in 2024

Pension Las Torres in 2024.

I could also remember how kinetic this area once was. The streets were full of people, there were fruit and vegetable hawkers on the sidewalks, the traffic was amps to 11. There was an energy to the place …

The memories that those photos brought back were remarkably uninteresting — their only relevance is that they serve as temporal waypoints between then and now.

The last time I was in Panama I was 26 years old. I was on my second fiancé. And from looking at photos of myself I’m not quite sure if I knew I was bald yet. Life was romantically pointless then. I had no real responsibilities, I was living off of scholarships and student financial aid mixed with earnings from the three months of archaeology fieldwork that I would do each summer. I had no real goals or plans … other than devising ways that I could keep doing what I was doing in perpetuity.

I had nothing then and was proud of it. I was a backpacker. I was free to be poor anywhere. I went back and read those posts from Panama that I published in early 2008. I wrote sheepishly then, apologetically — it was as though I was embarrassed to be doing what I was doing; that I was almost ashamed to be a blogger. I was clearly violating the Law of the Three Nothings: to have nothing, to be nothing, and to do nothing.

While it was unknown to me then, I was on the brink of sabotaging everything. I had no idea what was going to come next. I had no idea that these were the last moments of an era. I had no idea that I was about to board the something train to somewhere. I would soon leave Central America and attempt to ride a bicycle from Olomouc in the Czech Republic to Istanbul. Somewhere along the way I figured things out.

I ditched the bike in Budapest, went to Brooklyn …

And left that guy drinking out of a coconut in the ruins of Old Panama behind.

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Filed under: Panama, Travel Diary, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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