When I first visited the hidden alleyways and breezy public squares of Casco Viejo (or Casco Antiguo as its officially called) I felt a bit uncomfortable. I had left the sullied streets of New Jersey just days earlier in search of what I envisioned Panama to be; an exotic and untapped wonderland unlike anything I knew. The kind of place I could sip freshly shucked coconuts, walk in jungles with no shoes, and sleep peacefully by the sea.
But the vibe of Panama’s old city, Casco Viejo seemed somehow familiar. Surprisingly reminiscent. My guidebooks had predicted, like the advice of a wise oracle, that I would experience culture shock during my first weeks in my new country. They told me to confront said trauma by taking deep breaths and partaking in relaxing activities like long walks, reading, and social engagements whatever those are. In the end, I would never need their advice about leaving the States, because the ease I felt in Casco Antiguo, was mostly not unlike like returning home.
Wandering through Casco Viejo for the first time brought about this reflective tingle in my arms—the kind of wistful feeling that I had previously reserved for the final scenes of Rudy and Hoosiers and Saving Private Ryan. The quaint courtyards with old stone floors and fragrant flowers reminded me startlingly of my time in Madrid: a time in my youth that appeared to stand still. The old men on street corners, the narrow cobblestone passageways, and the century-old churches with creaky doors struck a chord back to my visits to Italy when summer afternoon walks—against all reason—never seemed to end. The romantic restaurants, ocean breeze, and stunning views seemed to epitomize Europe for me, a totally unexpected surprise in Central America.
So what brings me here? Two guys I knew spent years creating an amazing hotel-type place to stay in this beautiful neighborhood of Casco Antiguo: their project, Los Cuatro Tulipanes. The first time I met them, it was to stay in one of their luxury apartments and I think it’s fair to say that from them on, I was hooked. We kept in close contact, me stopping in every now and then to admire the century-old stone walls in their office and to grab free candy from their glass bowl when they weren’t looking.
Just of late, when the opportunity arose to become part of their project, my first question was clear: will the candy would be included? The responsibility of taking over an established business can be daunting, but it was an opportunity I was unable to pass up. Going back to elementary school, when I’d charge my friends $4 at sleepovers to use the guest room in our house, I believe I have always had a bit of hotelier in my blood. And it seems to be the dream of many: to own and operate a vacation getaway in paradise. But now that it’s been realized, when does the fun come to a halt?
And so here I sit in Plaza Bolivar; humming away on my laptop: the sounds of my fingers on the keyboard surely irritating the two lovebirds kissing by the curb. “Get a room” I’d normally shout at them. But reflecting on where I am and where things are going, I’m in an unusually cheerful mood. Maybe the guidebooks were right: maybe this all is a little bit shocking at first. But in reality, what exciting experiences aren’t that way?