You Can’t Go Back Again


Panama City, 10 years later.

The plaza in the colonial district still looks the same. The tidal flats are still muddy, and they still smell of the sea. Punta Paitilla still juts out across the bay, a glimmering jewel of finance, luxury, and life lived on another plane. The big ships are still there, floating at random anchorages, waiting to transit the Canal. A couple of them even look familiar. But so much has changed.

New buildings have gone up in the banking district, and there’s a condo boom down the shore at Punta del Este. The Hotel Central no longer squats in it’s own filth. It’s been completely gutted and work crews are busy turning it into a casino. A Brazilian company has built a causeway on land reclaimed from the sea, so you no longer have to drive down the Avenida Central to get to Casco Viejo — through the “dangerous” area, the place where I stayed last time. The entire colonial district is under construction, and I see scaffolding on every street as centuries-old buildings get a facelift. I wonder if the poor have been pushed out, as I predicted ten years before?

I’ve changed too, ten years later. Last time I stayed in a hotel surrounded by prostitutes just off the Avenida Central. I paid fifteen dollars for a room, which was too much, but I was just getting started and I didn’t know any better. I went everywhere on foot and by bus. It was my first real trip. That pivotal journey that changes your world so that nothing ever looks the same again. I wrote about it all in Vagabond Dreams.

Now I’m staying in a five star hotel in the banking district. A place where a butler comes to press my suit, and where my mini bar is restocked with ice each night. I’m here on business, and I no longer have endless time to wander these streets, or to sit and read on a bench by the sea. It feels like I’ve crossed that gulf I wrote about in this exact spot so many years before — that gap to Paitilla and the west — and I no longer belong here.

Was that the price I paid?

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • Spot on Ryan. Wonderful ability to express life. Always reluctant to comment on your work. Finger painting to your oil masters. Look forward to your work. Putting words to life is a gift, which I always look forward to unwrapping. Keep it up.


    • Thanks very much Michael, glad you enjoyed it. Just back from a weekend in Dresden, I’ll be writing about that next.


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