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Panama’s Election: Cities Are Lonely Places Without Bars

Panamá’s temporary prohibition gives me a new appreciation for the role of bars in a city’s fabric and what they mean for the traveler.

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PANAMÁ CITY, Panama- You never know how lonely a city can be until they shut down the bars.

From noon on Saturday to noon on Monday, — the day before to the day after the presidential election — Panama is in the throes of prohibition. Stores can’t sell alcohol, bars can’t serve it, and people can’t drink in the street.

“If they catch you drinking it’s a $100 fine,” I was told.

Of course, there are ways around these restrictions. Bars outside the central areas of cities or in higher class establishments will just serve booze in disposable cups and either write it down on the bill as juice or require payment in cash. In one beach town near Panama City I was served an ice cold Corona in a styrofoam coffee cup. In a higher end restaurant where I was hanging with some local friends they wrote strawberry juice on the bill.

But, even still, for all intents and purposes the entire drinking apparatus here has basically been shut down — most bars didn’t even bother opening.

And Panama City is a very lonely place because of it.

https://x.com/vagabondjourney/status/1787121717149675958?s=46&t=Wyyu38DaUWUZyTBkIszlMw

I’m hanging out on Argentina Ave in the El Cangrejo district and there’s hardly anyone out on the streets, there’s hardly any traffic, and this entire area that’s usually one of the biggest party zones of the city is completely dead.

I spent a couple of hours walking up and down the strip, just looking for a crowd . The lack of people made me feel social — I wanted to find out what people were thinking about the election, the prohibition, and everything else … but without bars most people just stayed home.

I found a group of dudes drinking pop at a table in front of a bar that was running a $3 burger and fries promotion … I guess you have go to such measures to attract customers to a boozeless bar.

I sat down and ordered a nonalcoholic craft seltzer and a promo burger and listened to their conversation about the election as I typed out a blog post on my phone.

Besides us, there’s nobody around in the streets anywhere. Sometimes a group of skateboarding kids will roll by, taking advantage of the lack of cars. Once in a while the bored server would walk outside to check on me.

I’d like to order something more but how many nonalcoholic craft seltzers can you drink?

The bar serves a vital social function in this world …

… and for the traveler they are often imperative for diving deeper into a culture and making friends.

When I’m in a new place where I don’t know anyone I head for the most local looking, old man bar I can find, walk in, order something, and strike up a conversation with the bartender. When other people see you connecting with someone they know it removes your outsider spines a little … and often other people will start jumping into the conversation … and, before long, you’ve found what you’re looking for.

Without the bar there just isn’t that social space for strangers to interact with other strangers.

Molino won the election, as expected. There will be no riots. The bars will be back tomorrow at noon and life will go back to normal … for another five years.

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Filed under: Panama, Travel Diary

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 3719 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

5 comments… add one

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  • Trevor Warman May 6, 2024, 3:06 am

    Isn’t that like during the Big C when you couldn’t get(😝) beer officially and they wrote juice on the receipt?

    Probably Corona Las Cerveza mas fina was mistaken for Covid in a glass.

    Great stories coming out of Panama Wade.

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    • VBJ May 6, 2024, 10:42 am

      Haha yes, very much like that. Oddly, they kind of made drinking more exciting 🤣

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      • VBJ May 6, 2024, 10:42 am

        Or at least more interesting!

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      • Trevor May 8, 2024, 2:38 am

        Doing something that u possibly shouldn’t be doing is always more of a thrill, in many different scenarios.

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      • VBJ May 9, 2024, 7:59 am

        Haha yes, that’s very true!

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