Café Coca Cola is the oldest cafe in Panama City, Panama or so they say. A Panama City icon, opened its doors in 1875, making it the oldest café in the city. It is also the only café in the world to be named “Coca Cola,” a namesake endorsed by the Coca-Cola corporation.
Nobody knows for sure when Panama City’s Café Coca Cola acquired the nickname that has made it famous for most of the 20th century. The truth is that it was one of the first places in the world outside the United States where the famous beverage was sold and served.
In 1906, Panama, along with Cuba, became one of the first countries to operate Coca-Cola bottling plants outside of North America, just in time to refresh the thousands of laborers brought to build the Canal during those years. Therefore, 2006 marked the 100th anniversary of Coca-Cola on the Isthmus.
A neighborhood institution near Plaza Santa Ana, Café Coca Cola is an old-school diner, complete with chess-playing señores and no-nonsense waitresses. It’s also air-conditioned and chock full of TVs playing the latest Latin American football matches, which makes Café Coca Cola something of a hang-out spot for Casco Viejo’s working class.
The place is full of history. If you walk to the end of Avenida Central you will see the Café Coca-Cola; this is where Che Guevara stayed when he was passing through Panama on his way to Guatemala and later Mexico around late 1953 or early 1954. This is also where Noriega’s men beat up the opposition, after the opposition had won the elections of 1989.
This is where Guillermo, “Billy” Ford, the Panama Vice-presidential candidate, was beat up on the street during the Military Dictatorship. Those days are gone and Panama is a now safe place to visit. As you walk down Avenida Central notice the apartment balconies above the storefronts. Many of the families who live in these apartments came to Panama from Gujarat, India; the home province of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
They came to Panama with virtually empty pockets, but have since prospered, thanks to their money lending business called ferri. They charge exorbitant interest rates for giving petty loans to the lower and middle class Panamanians. This practice continues even as we speak.
And now you know a bit more about Panama, the land kissed by two of the largest oceans of the world and home of the famous Panama Canal.