Tito Herrera for The New York Times
Casco Viejo, the old quarter of Panama City, left, and a newer, more vertical skyline, right.
Here is a great article that appeared in the Times.Â Has anyone heard ofÂ anything negative in the press about Panama?Â I cannot remember either.
ByÂ TIM NEVILLE
Published: May 3, 2013
Traffic into Panama City was flowing for once, so Miguel FĂˇbrega hadÂ only a moment to point out the crumbling ruins in the distance. TheyÂ were the remains of a 16th-century New Spanish settlement that theÂ British privateer Sir Henry Morgan eventually sacked in 1671. Ahead ofÂ us rose Old Panamaâ€™s modern replacement: a forest of green, blue andÂ yellow glass skyscrapers that sifted the metallic Central American skyÂ into great vertical columns.
â€śYouâ€™re going to hear a lot about identity, who we are and where we areÂ going,â€ť said Mr. FĂˇbrega, a 37-year-old artist, writer and partner in aÂ creative think tank called DiabloRosso, which promotes emerging artistsÂ in Panama. We had met over e-mail a few weeks earlier while I wasÂ searching for creative residents willing to show me their city, andÂ moments ago he had picked me up at the airport.
Despite being founded in 1519, Panama is really only 13 years old, Mr.Â FĂˇbrega argued, its birthday being Dec. 31, 1999, the day the UnitedÂ States gave the Panama Canal and its surrounding land back to theÂ Panamanians. For the first time in a century the country was whole andÂ independent.
â€śMy generation inherited this blank canvas,â€ť said Mr. FĂˇbrega, hisÂ salt-and-pepper hair fluttering slightly in the Audiâ€™s air-conditioning.Â â€śNow we have the chance to make it our own.â€ť
Today, that canvas is far from blank, however. Over the past 13 years,Â Panama City has been racing to become a world-class metropolis, and forÂ travelers, the changes have been enormous. In 1997 there were perhapsÂ 1,400 hotel rooms in Panama City. Now there are more than 15,000 withÂ another 4,582 rooms in the pipeline, according to STR Global, aÂ London-based agency that tracks hotel markets. In the last two yearsÂ alone, Trump, Starwood, Waldorf-Astoria, Westin and Hard Rock haveÂ opened hotels here. A new biodiversity museum designed by Frank Gehry isÂ nearly complete. The countryâ€™s first modern dance festival unfoldedÂ last year, the same year Panama held its first international filmÂ festival. The Panama Jazz Festival is going strong after 10 years. TheÂ country even has its own year-old microbrewery.
â€śPanama was this compressed spring just ready to go,â€ť said KeyesÂ Christopher Hardin, a New York lawyer-turned-developer working toÂ restore the cityâ€™s old colonial area. â€śWhen the Noriega dictator yearsÂ ended and the U.S. returned all that canal land, things just took off.Â Everything that could go right did go right.â€ť
Indeed, since 2008, when much of the world was in a recession, theÂ Panamanian economy has expanded by nearly 50 percent. The canal itself,Â which frames the western edge of Panama City, is undergoing a $5.25Â billion expansion that is expected to double its capacity and fuel evenÂ more economic growth.
Yes, Panama still struggles with crime and poverty, but foreigners areÂ clearly intrigued with the way things are unfolding. In 1999 justÂ 457,000 international tourists visited Panama, World Bank figures show.Â In 2011, more than 1.4 million came. Plenty are staying, too:Â sun-seeking Americans, Venezuelans and wealthy Colombian expatriates whoÂ are buying second homes and retirement properties all over Panama. InÂ short, this city of about 880,000 people has gone from a ho-hum businessÂ center on the navy blue Pacific to a major leisure destination inÂ record time. In doing so it has become a place full of the kind ofÂ paradoxes that occur whenever a very old place grinds against the veryÂ new. While the capital now has luxury apartments and five-star cuisine,Â the thing it needs most is a solid sense of identity.
â€śYou drive in and see all these skyscrapers and you have to wonder, isÂ it just a mirage or does it have any substance?â€ť Johann Wolfschoon, anÂ architect and designer, told me. â€śWhat we need to be is amazing. NotÂ amazing for Panama, but amazing.â€ť
IT WAS LATE MARCH, my first day of five in the city, and over the nextÂ few days I hoped to get a sense of a city as it enters its teenageÂ years. I would hike through slums where street merchants sold blackÂ magic spices, then change my shirt to sip $15 cocktails in the neonÂ glamour of a Hard Rock bar. I would eat terrible chicken and wonderfulÂ octopus. Iâ€™d spend time with locals, expats, artists, entrepreneurs and aÂ former gangster.
For now, Mr. FĂˇbrega wanted to show me his interpretation of some of theÂ changes afoot. We peeled off the freeway, turned down a boulevard andÂ entered Costa del Este, a section of the city with a skyline that lookedÂ like a concrete comb. Our destination was a pop-up gallery that hadÂ opened the night before inside an unfinished retail space at the bottomÂ of a new white skyscraper. Sixteen of Mr. FĂˇbregaâ€™s abstract paintingsÂ with bright yellows, blues and reds hung on the concrete walls in anÂ exhibition he called â€śBanana Republic.â€ť It didnâ€™t take long to spot someÂ common motifs: finger-shapes that formed no hands, faucets that had noÂ pipes and machines that could do no work.
â€śThis is Panama,â€ť Mr. FĂˇbrega said with a shrug. â€śItâ€™s beautiful, but it makes no sense.â€ť
Indeed, Panama City can feel rather absurd at times. Soon a new $2Â billion subway, Central Americaâ€™s first, will whisk people from A to B,Â but a dearth of sidewalks can make it tough to go anywhere once youÂ arrive. A modern city could use proper addresses, too. Instead, â€śby theÂ old KFCâ€ť or â€śacross from the guayacĂˇn treeâ€ť is often as precise as itÂ gets. As we left the gallery, Mr. FĂˇbrega said the surest way for him toÂ get mail is to have it sent to his girlfriend in New York.
We drove a few miles west to Casco Viejo, a colonial neighborhood on theÂ far edge of the city, where Mr. FĂˇbrega dropped me off. Casco Viejo,Â which is sometimes called Casco Antiguo, is a warren of brick streets,Â leafy plazas and Spanish colonial rum bars blasting the 2/4 beats ofÂ cumbia. After Sir Morgan sacked Old Panama, the Spanish regrouped andÂ started anew, this time on a defendable peninsula a few miles away onÂ which Casco Viejo now stands.
I wandered around to get my bearings â€” seven squares, six churches, oneÂ fine-looking ice cream shop â€” and then checked into my hotel. The CanalÂ House, near the Plaza Mayor, did not look so special from the outside: aÂ white and gray block surrounded by steel barricades for road-workingÂ crews. Inside, it was another world, a quiet colonial refuge with richÂ wood floors, high windows and a cozy lounge. A woven basket sat near myÂ bed, a shout-out to how Panamanians still lower meals from the windowsÂ of upstairs kitchens to sidewalk restaurants. On a shelf in the barÂ downstairs I found a framed note from the actor Daniel Craig, who hadÂ stayed while filming scenes for the James Bond movie â€śQuantum ofÂ Solace.â€ť (Casco Viejo stood in for La Paz, Bolivia): â€śI wish we wouldÂ have stayed longer.â€ť
Panama has pretty much always been a bridge for cultures, conquerorsÂ and, well, birds, but once that mishmash gets distilled into the 50-someÂ blocks of Casco Viejo, an eclectic, almost Noahâ€™s Ark-like vibrancyÂ prevails. The Chinese run so many small groceries here that PanamaniansÂ simply call the shops â€śChinos.â€ť The French left their mark on the cornerÂ of Avenida A and Calle 4, where a Parisian-style apartment buildingÂ displays elegant rounded balconies. You hear German, Portuguese andÂ English on the streets.
Parts of the area are still pretty seedy, though, and an elite divisionÂ of stern-looking police officers patrol the area with machine guns andÂ motorcycles. â€śI was definitely nervous about coming here at first, withÂ the shootings and the gangs,â€ť recalled Matt Landau, a New Jerseyan whoÂ moved to Panama City in 2006 and now owns Los Cuatro Tulipanes, aÂ boutique hotel and apartment enterprise in Casco Viejo. A stray bulletÂ smashed into the Canal House in 2009, and Mr. Landau still warns guestsÂ not to wander beyond certain blocks. But Casco Viejo does feel quiteÂ safe, even at night, when the neighborhood comes alive with busyÂ restaurants and rooftop bars. â€śI canâ€™t begin to tell you how much it hasÂ all changed,â€ť he said.
Mr. Hardin, the developer, has been one of the major players behind thatÂ change. His firm buys property in Casco Viejo, renovates it and sellsÂ it for about $2,500 per square meter on average. Along the way, heÂ builds affordable housing and works to get kids off the streets byÂ offering jobs that ultimately improve the neighborhood. â€śRevitalizationÂ always revolves around a culture, not an industry,â€ť Mr. Hardin said.Â â€śYou need a place with good bones thatâ€™s affordable with spaces thatÂ people can use to explore â€” pioneering restaurants, galleries â€” and thenÂ you get events around those spaces. Thatâ€™s whatâ€™s happening here. SoÂ yes, itâ€™s like Miami, but Miami in maybe 1989.â€ť
To understand what he meant, he suggested I meet Nicolas Mercado, aÂ former gang member who now runs a popular bar called La Vecindad onÂ Avenida A. Mr. Mercado, who has a shaved head and thick, muscled arms,Â welcomed me in a courtyard at the end of a long entryway where twoÂ friendly police officers happened to be standing. Graffiti, the artfulÂ kind with intricate angles and bold colors, lined the walls. Upstairs aÂ singer was working on a Latin pop track in the barâ€™s recording studio.
It was midafternoon and the place was closed, but Mr. Mercado and I satÂ outside and talked about change. In a way, his story mirrors theÂ turnaround of the entire neighborhood. In the early days of contemporaryÂ Panama, or 1999, Mr. Mercado was 16 and the head of the Hot Boys gang,Â which prowled the eastern blocks of Casco Viejo. There were three otherÂ gangs in the area. They mostly sold drugs, though robberies and murderÂ were common too. One day a man came by ostensibly to buy some marijuana,Â but he shot Mr. Mercado with a pistol four times instead. The man gotÂ away, and Mr. Mercado mostly recovered.
â€śI knew I had to get out,â€ť he said, showing me the scar of a bullet wound on his hand. â€śThis wasnâ€™t for me.â€ť
So Mr. Hardin donated a space for him and his buddies to start aÂ barbershop. It did not go so well. The first client, an American,Â wandered out with just half of his head trimmed because theÂ gangster-turned-barber ducked out to make a deal and didnâ€™t come back.Â Mr. Mercado eventually shaped up and turned the space into La VecindadÂ in 2009, which has since become so popular with live music that itÂ warranted an expansion into the courtyard. There are no more strayÂ bullets.
â€śIâ€™m free now,â€ť he said when I asked whether he thought the reality ofÂ his old ways could return to haunt him. â€śIt doesnâ€™t get any more realÂ than that.â€ť
OF COURSE, the cityâ€™s growing pains have been pretty real, too. Boca laÂ Caja, a poor fishing community, is struggling as the cityâ€™s demand forÂ prime real estate presses in around it and strangles its access to theÂ sea. A similar fate looms over Casco Viejo with the construction of aÂ controversial bypass that threatens to annul the neighborhoodâ€™s UnescoÂ World Heritage status. Traffic is terrible.
I had been inside the Panama Interoceanic Canal MuseumÂ â€” a third-floor exhibition in a red-roof building just off the PlazaÂ Mayor â€” reading about the hazards of building the canal, when Mr.Â FĂˇbrega picked me up the next day. I still wanted to explore the cityâ€™sÂ music, nature and food scene, so we stopped-and-goâ€™ed our way to aÂ restaurant called Maito in Coco del Mar, a largely residential areaÂ about three miles away. â€śI think youâ€™ll like what the chef is doing,â€ťÂ Mr. FĂˇbrega said.
The chef would have to work hard to impress me. â€śStarchy, sweet, friedÂ and basic,â€ť is the way Patrick Maurin, the French executive chef atÂ Trump Ocean Club, described Panamanian food, and few would argueÂ otherwise. One night, I had ordered a salad at a restaurant near theÂ Canal House and cringed at the sorry bits of barbecued chicken and paleÂ lettuce that arrived.
â€śPanama is not a culture thatâ€™s built around the table,â€ť said DavidÂ Henesy, a New York restaurateur, who in 2005 started La Posta, aÂ contemporary restaurant in the Calle Uruguay area that focuses on local,Â environmentally sustainable ingredients. It can still be difficult toÂ find high-quality foods to work with, he said. â€śIf you want an heirloomÂ tomato or an organic pig, you pretty much have to do it yourself.â€ť
Another chef, Mario CastrellĂłn, is trying to do just that. AfterÂ studying cooking in Spain, Mr. CastrellĂłn returned to Panama in 2005 toÂ work under Mr. Henesy. In 2009 he started his own venture, Maito, whichÂ now competes alongside a dozen other worthy places like Las ClementinasÂ or Tantalo Kitchen, both in Casco Viejo.
Maito was nearly full when Mr. FĂˇbrega and I found a table under paddleÂ fans next to a window. Outside a gardener tended to raised beds thatÂ were bushy with Thai basil, cilantro and other herbs that show up in theÂ food.
â€śNo one knows what Panamanian cuisine really is,â€ť Mr. CastrellĂłn, who isÂ 30, said later. â€śPeople can name maybe four traditional dishes, but weÂ eat a bit of everything here â€” Chinese, French, African, Spanish,Â Colombian, American.â€ť
Mr. FĂˇbrega and I shared a sea bass hot dog â€” fine, flaky fish rolledÂ into a sausage shape and lightly battered and fried â€” which was far moreÂ delicious than it sounds. We tore into an order of ropa vieja,Â literally â€śold clothes,â€ť a traditional meal of shredded beef and sauceÂ that Mr. CastrellĂłn has invigorated with spicy peppers, annatto and goatÂ cheese salsa.
The crowning analogy came with the octopus. The creature had beenÂ candied, set upon a garbanzo bean paste, and garnished with cilantroÂ flowers and other herbs. It was sweet, spicy, succulent.
â€śChinese glaze, Spanish beans, local herbs,â€ť Mr. CastrellĂłn said. â€śPutÂ all these elements together, and now you have a Panamanian octopus.â€ť
Eager to explore more of the city, I said a hasty goodbye to Mr. FĂˇbregaÂ and met up with Jessica Ramesch, the Panama editor of InternationalÂ Living magazine. We piled into her Hyundai and fought our way out to aÂ former United States military base called Clayton that sits along theÂ canal in the northwest part of the city.
â€śAll of this area was pretty much closed to Panamanians when theÂ Americans were here,â€ť she said as we crept through the Canal Zone, aÂ Phoenix-size former United States territory where Americans working andÂ defending the canal lived a strange, cross-world existence. â€śZonians,â€ťÂ as they were called, could get Guess jeans and Jif peanut butter just asÂ on most military bases abroad, but then monkeys might walk with theÂ children to school. Huge ships moved through the Miraflores Locks justÂ to the west of the road.
â€śMany Zonians stayed and some of the bases have become these gorgeous neighborhoods,â€ť Ms. Ramesch said.
Clayton is one of them. Though it was now getting dark, I could seeÂ community centers and signs for the City of Knowledge, a compound forÂ research, tech companies and nongovernmental organizations. We parkedÂ near a soccer field and wandered toward a massive corotĂş tree where aÂ crowd had spread out blankets and lawn chairs. A band was warming upÂ near the trunk.
While much of the cityâ€™s night life unfolds along Calle Uruguay, everyÂ full moon during the dry months hundreds of people head out to ClaytonÂ to bang on Tupperware containers, buckets and anything else that mightÂ make a noise. They do their best to follow the band â€” just a group ofÂ friends, really â€” which plays pop, reggae and whatever else it feelsÂ like.
â€śWho here can drum?â€ť an announcer shouted into a microphone, and the pounding became a roar.
Over the next several days, few things I saw or did in the city hadÂ quite the same wow factor as this bucket band gathered under an oldÂ tree. I sipped cocktails at Barlovento, a new rooftop bar where slinkyÂ women and V-shaped men swirled around in a cyclone of perfume andÂ cigarettes, and I shopped for tapestries made by Kuna Indians along aÂ waterfront paseo. A hike on a steep, car-less road up a jungly hill inÂ the middle of the city stood out, but thatâ€™s because an anteater crossedÂ my tracks, and Iâ€™d never seen one of those before.
But here on the ground with wine and cheese and a fat moon hanging inÂ the trees, I wondered if a city needs to add up to make sense. As absurdÂ as Panama City can feel at times, it is certainly a lot of fun, too,Â and between the cracks of all the chaos, these mini-miracles areÂ burbling through.
As if on cue, the bucket bandâ€™s disparate racket gradually fell intoÂ sync until â€” no way â€” â€śThe Girl From Ipanemaâ€ť emerged. It was messy andÂ loud and no one knew how it would end, which made it all the moreÂ amazing, too.
IF YOU GO
Panama uses U.S. dollars but people call them Balboas.
Where to Stay
The Canal House off the Plaza Mayor in Casco Viejo hasÂ three suites with king- or queen-size beds, free use of cellphones and aÂ common area for breakfasts and cocktails. From $210 to $350 a night.Â Information: canalhousepanama.com.
The Magnolia Inn (magnoliapanama.com),Â also near the Plaza Mayor in Casco Viejo, has more affordable rooms,Â some with views of downtown Panama City. From $100 to $150 a night.
The Bristol (thebristol.com), in the financial district of the city, has 129 rooms and suites with local artwork. From $208 to $400 a night.
The Hard Rock Megapolis (hrhpanamamegapolis.com)Â on Avenida Balboa has 850 modern-style rooms with another 500 to beÂ opening soon. Expect a Vegas-style experience with lots of music,Â high-dollar cocktails and masterful glitz like geode-inlaid floors. FromÂ $149 to $279.
Where to Eat
Maito, new Panamanian cuisine, Coco del Mar area; (507)-391-4657 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (507)-391-4657Â Â Â Â Â Â end_of_the_skype_highlighting; maitopanama.com.
La Posta, contemporary cuisine, Calle Uruguay area; (507) 269-1076 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (507) 269-1076Â Â Â Â Â Â end_of_the_skype_highlighting; lapostapanama.com.
Luna, contemporary cuisine, financial district; (507) 264-5862 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (507) 264-5862Â Â Â Â Â Â end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
Las Clementinas, new Panamanian cuisine, Casco Viejo; (877) 889-0351 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (877) 889-0351Â Â Â Â Â Â end_of_the_skype_highlighting; lasclementinas.com.
TĂˇntalo, international cuisine, Casco Viejo; (507) 262-4030 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (507) 262-4030Â Â Â Â Â Â end_of_the_skype_highlighting; tantalohotel.com.
Fish market, seafood, near entrance to Casco Viejo.Â Numerous types of cevice in plastic foam cups for about $2. VeryÂ pungent. Often packed. No phone or Web site.
DiabloRosso, cafe, Casco Viejo, (507) 262-1957 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (507) 262-1957Â Â Â Â Â Â end_of_the_skype_highlighting; diablorosso.com.
GranclĂ©ment, Artisanal ice cream, Casco Viejo; (507) 208-0737 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (507) 208-0737Â Â Â Â Â Â end_of_the_skype_highlighting; granclement.com.