Some things we take for granted living in the United States, Canada, and other developed countries. Things that tourists and new expats never think about when traveling to countries where infrastructures are less developed and building codes less sophisticated than what we are used to…
The streets and sidewalks may not be paved with gold in North America, but they are paved… and generally they have even surfaces. This cannot be said for many of the walkways here in Panama.
I always thought of myself as sure-footed, but, now, 11 years into living in Panama, I’ve lost all confidence in that assertion. (Though my pride obligates me to mention, the series of accidents I’ll unfold would never have occurred in the United States.)
In my first few years in Panama, I tripped over broken paving, uneven sidewalks, or other debris while walking down the street regularly, it seems. I fell fully on my face or rear about five times in those first exploratory years—one fall injured me enough to require six stitches in my hand.
If you like to run or walk… you must always be looking down in Panama. Always. My Panamanian wife once made fun of my odd walking posture, saying I looked like a hunched-over old man, always looking down… but it’s a necessary safety precaution!
There is no conformity to sidewalks in Panama. One short stretch of sidewalk can consist of several different types of paving materials, each with its own texture and height, and often not meeting at any level point. Aside from lack of planning or forethought in uniform creation, anything that was once nicely paved or tiled is likely to be in a sorry state of disrepair—even if it was only created in the past year.
Panama City’s seaside location and heavy rains for most of the year mean that road and sidewalk maintenance is a Sisyphean task. Add to that the fact that Panama is jungle country—the city carved out of otherwise pristine rain forest—meaning that Mother Nature is constantly pushing back to reestablish herself. Tree roots push up under the concrete, breaking and distorting the pavement, grass will grow out of any crevice—or create one where there was none previously. If left unabated, vines and creeping plants will take over a building and its surrounding infrastructure within weeks.
None of this is quickly or easily repaired… if at all. The city is not falling-over itself (pardon the pun) to fix its groundwork. Either due to lack of will or funds, maintenance like this always takes a back seat to Panama’s more ambitious infrastructure projects. Some of the money-making areas of the city have been recently renovated, namely the ever-popular Casco Viejo and the touristy Amador Causeway… but upgrades are few and far between.
Take a careful walk down Vía Argentina… Or stroll Vía España near Plaza Concordia… Promenade down Calle Ricardo Arias between the Marriott Hotel and the El Rey supermarket… Or try a jaunt between Vía España and Vía Argentina on Vía Veneto…
But do so with caution.
All these streets are popular walking areas. Vía Argentina could be called restaurant row. Vía Veneto is populated with tourist shops, cafés, hotels, and casinos. The Plaza Concordia strip of Vía España is a popular shopping district, lined with stores selling all manner of goods. Ricardo Arias is home to some of Panama’s best restaurants and several high-end hotels and casinos. Yet all of these streets and their sidewalks are in deplorable condition.
I mention these streets because they represent my home turf; this is the area where I walk. And the places where all of my accidents occurred.
But almost all of the streets in Panama are the same: dangerous for pedestrians. Combine that with the fact that most expats and tourists to the city are older and not as sure-footed or sharp-eyed as they once were, and you’ve got a potential disaster for the unobservant.
Luckily, there is a respite from shambles of concrete and mislaid brick. The city’s gleaming, new Cinta Costera (new is a bit of an overstatement, the project was inaugurated in 2009 and Phase III was completed in 2014). This 26-hectare (64-acre) bay-side park offers lanes for bikers, runners, and walkers, as well as fitness equipment, sport courts, art installations, and lots of green space.
So far I’ve only mentioned those hazards that exist outdoors. You may think the danger is over once you’ve made it inside. Not so!
Interiors of buildings, restaurants, and stores are not always designed with a mind to safety—certainly not with the care and regulation that buildings up north would be.
Recently my wife and I went to an event at the new Jacaranda Gastobar restaurant located at the also-new Plaza Downtown. The contractor seems to have thought that two feet outside of the patio door and directly in front of it would be a perfect place to put the propane pipe and raise it an inch off the floor—just enough to catch your shoe and send you flying.
I tripped just outside the patio door. I caught myself (I wasn’t there long enough to get drunk) but had I not caught myself, I would have crashed face first into the four-foot-high patio glass wall in front of me with sangria flying everywhere. It made me look foolish and klutzy in front of a lot of people… though I try to take it as a chance to embrace humility.
And that’s not all. Three propane tanks were located just a few feet on the other side of the patio glass wall where everyone goes to smoke. Whatever happened to the “no smoking within 20 feet” rule? One flick of a cigarette butt in that direction could have made the party more explosive than they hoped it would be.
Happily, I found no other life-threatening hazards during this particular dinner outing.
Then there are the stairways in Panama… Like snowflakes, it seems that no two are created alike. I tripped over, banged my knees on, or stubbed my toes countless times on stairs in the first few years of my residency here.
In more developed countries, there are building codes and standards regarding stairway construction. The risers must be so high and the steps must be so deep. When you climbed the stairs you never had to think about it.
Not so in Panama. If you go up or down the stairs without looking, you’re liable to trip all over yourself. This is especially true of the older buildings, of which there are many.
Lastly, nearly every hotel, mall, apartment building, and business complex has inexplicably paved their entryways, surrounding sidewalks, and outdoor pathways in marble, porcelain, or some other kind of highly polished tile. If you’ve been to Panama and stayed at a hotel, you’ve no doubt noticed the beautiful exterior tiling.
Beautiful, but completely impractical. Treacherous, even.
When these kinds of tiles get wet, they are slippery. Hence the signs that every litigious country uses profusely. And when are they not wet in Panama, except maybe a couple months in the dry season?
Rain isn’t the only factor… the unrelenting humidity adds to the problem. And, of course, these floors are mopped with water and cleaner daily.
The entire world has been plagued by wet-floor-slip-and-fall accidents, resulting in serious personal injury to clients, customers, employees, and the general public passing by… Panamanians don’t seem concerned.
In the United States, over 1 million people suffer a slip, trip, and fall injury every year. Approximately 19,565 people die annually due to injuries caused by falls in the States. With the added hazards of uneven walkways, oddly sized stairs, and the abundance of hard, polished floor in Panama, proportionally to population, the statistics have to be higher.
While I want to ensure that you are prepared, I by no means want to discourage you from coming to enjoy Panama City and all it has to offer visitors and residents alike. Be careful when walking or exercising in Panama, and safely relish all its treasures.