Just outside of the Casco Viejo limits exists one of the most bustling, eclectic, hot, intriguing, entertaining, and vibrant pedestrian streets I’ve ever been to: Avenida Central. It’s pretty clear to anyone who crosses over Calle 12, headed northwest, that they’ve crossed some kind of invisible, unspoken line. There are less restored buildings and there is more exhaust, more honking, more neon lights and curious glances. Giant, brightly painted buses with gangly arms of passengers hanging from dropped windows, blast passed rickety old vegetable & fruit carts. People move more briskly as they dodge garbage and mangy dogs. Heading into the neighborhood of Santa Ana, it’s fair to say that one is heading deeper into the real Panama City.
Finding shade and reprieve from the muggy, direct sun, Parque de Santa Ana is the threshold of the long, wide pedestrian section of Avenida Central. Elderly men and women sit motionless on benches, shoes are shined, children chase cats, radios crackle, and the ancient moss that hangs down lazy and limp from surrounding park trees creates an element of calm before the storm. Embarking on down Avenida Central is an experience that definitely may not appeal to everyone, but is one I really enjoy. It is a cultural cross-section, a tangled web of community and history that I see as a true reflection of what Latin America is for the majority of Latin Americans.
On Avenida Central, one can shop for anything and everything. You want a new plastic, floor fan? You got. High heels? Only 7.99. Papaya? Six for the price of one. Chinese buffet for lunch? Yup. Need to stop at the bank? Check. Lottery ticket? Si señor. Perhaps you would like a quick pedicure? Pull up a plastic chair and pick your color. Haircut? This swively seat is for you. If you want to buy meat, milk, laundry detergent, medicine, underwear, a wristwatch, a key chain that looks like President Martinelli’s head, a coconut water in a styrofoam cup, a fluorescent pink cell phone, a pure gold ring for your novia linda, some Doritos, fake Crocs, a television, dishwasher, or microwave, a bicycle for your child, perfume in bulk, or maybe even a new rosary for your rearview mirror, Avenida Central is the place for you.
There is a woven way of life here that never seems to slow down and yet has the air of Caribbean coolness all at once. One could simply sit on a curb and watch a multitude of cultures pass before their eyes, hear a slew of different languages, and most definitely make a few friends in the process. To me, a trip to Avenida Central is an experience that represents so much more than just a stroll to pick up something I might need.
It’s a peepshow into the heart and soul of Panama City.