Photos by TITO HERRERA / The New York Times
People walk along the bay in Panama City.¬† Over the past 13 years, the Panama capital has been racing to become a¬† world-class metropolis.
In a great article by¬† Tim Neville of the NY Times, he explores the main streets of Panama City to the back alleys of the old city.
Traffic into Panama City was flowing for once, so Miguel¬† Fabrega had only a moment to point out the crumbling ruins in the¬† distance. They were the remains of a 16th-century New Spanish settlement¬† that the British privateer Sir Henry Morgan eventually sacked in 1671.¬† Ahead of us rose Old Panama‚Äôs modern replacement: a forest of green,¬† blue and yellow glass skyscrapers that sifted the metallic Central¬† American sky into great vertical columns.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôre going to hear a lot about identity, who we are and where we¬† are going,‚ÄĚ said Fabrega, a 37-year-old artist, writer and partner in a¬† creative think tank called DiabloRosso, which promotes emerging artists¬† in Panama.
Despite being founded in 1519, Panama is really only 13 years old,¬† Fabrega argued, its birthday being Dec. 31, 1999, the day the United¬† States gave the Panama Canal and its surrounding land back to the¬† Panamanians. For the first time in a century the country was whole and¬† independent.
‚ÄúMy generation inherited this blank canvas,‚ÄĚ said Fabrega. ‚ÄúNow we have the chance to make it our own.‚ÄĚ
Today, that canvas is far from blank, however. Over the past 13¬† years, Panama City has been racing to become a world-class metropolis,¬† and for travelers, the changes have been enormous. In 1997 there were¬† perhaps 1,400 hotel rooms in Panama City. Now there are more than 15,000¬† rooms with 4,582 more in the pipeline, according to STR Global, a¬† London-based agency that tracks hotel markets. In the last two years¬† alone, Trump, Starwood, Waldorf-Astoria, Westin and Hard Rock have¬† opened hotels here. A new biodiversity museum designed by Frank Gehry is¬† nearly complete. The country‚Äôs first modern dance festival unfolded¬† last year, the same year Panama held its first international film¬† festival. The Panama Jazz Festival is going strong after 10 years. The¬† country even has its own year-old microbrewery.
‚ÄúPanama was this compressed spring just ready to go,‚ÄĚ said Keyes¬† Christopher Hardin, a New York lawyer-turned-developer working to¬† restore the city‚Äôs old colonial area. ‚ÄúWhen the Noriega dictator years¬† ended and the U.S. returned all that canal land, things just took off.¬† Everything that could go right did go right.‚ÄĚ
Indeed, since 2008, when much of the world was in a recession, the¬† Panamanian economy has expanded by nearly 50 percent. The canal itself,¬† which frames the western edge of Panama City, is undergoing a $5.25¬† billion expansion that is expected to double its capacity and fuel even¬† more economic growth.
Yes, Panama still struggles with crime and poverty, but foreigners¬† are clearly intrigued with the way things are unfolding. In 1999 just¬† 457,000 international tourists visited Panama, World Bank figures show.¬† In 2011, more than 1.4 million came. Plenty are staying, too:¬† sun-seeking Americans, Venezuelans and wealthy Colombian expatriates who¬† are buying second homes and retirement properties all over Panama.
From slums to cocktail bars
In short, this city of about 880,000 people has gone from a ho-hum¬† business center on the navy blue Pacific to a major leisure destination¬† in record time. In doing so it has become a place full of the kind of¬† paradoxes that occur whenever a very old place grinds against the very¬† new. While the capital now has luxury apartments and five-star cuisine,¬† the thing it needs most is a solid sense of identity.
In my spring visit, I hoped to get a sense of a city as it enters its¬† teenage years. I would hike through slums where street merchants sold¬† black magic spices, then change my shirt to sip $15 cocktails in the¬† neon glamour of a Hard Rock bar. I would eat terrible chicken and¬† wonderful octopus. I‚Äôd spend time with locals, expats, artists,¬† entrepreneurs and a former gangster.
For now, Fabrega wanted to show me his interpretation of some of the¬† changes afoot. We drove to Costa del Este, a section of the city with a¬† skyline that looked like a concrete comb. Our destination was a pop-up¬† gallery that had opened the night before inside an unfinished retail¬† space at the bottom of a new white skyscraper. Sixteen of Fabrega‚Äôs¬† abstract paintings with bright yellows, blues and reds hung on the¬† concrete walls in an exhibition he called ‚ÄúBanana Republic.‚ÄĚ It didn‚Äôt¬† take long to spot some common motifs: finger-shapes that formed no¬† hands, faucets that had no pipes and machines that could do no work.
‚ÄúThis is Panama,‚ÄĚ Fabrega said with a shrug. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs beautiful, but it makes no sense.‚ÄĚ
Panama has pretty much always been a bridge for cultures, conquerors¬† and, well, birds, but once that mishmash gets distilled into the 50-some¬† blocks of the colonial neighborhood of Casco Viejo, an eclectic, almost¬† Noah‚Äôs Ark-like vibrancy prevails. The Chinese run so many small¬† groceries here that Panamanians simply call the shops ‚ÄúChinos.‚ÄĚ The¬† French left their mark on the corner of Avenida A and Calle 4, where a¬† Parisian-style apartment building displays elegant rounded balconies.¬† You hear German, Portuguese and English on the streets.
Parts of the area are still pretty seedy, though, and an elite¬† division of stern-looking police officers patrol the area with machine¬† guns and motorcycles. ‚ÄúI was definitely nervous about coming here at¬† first, with the shootings and the gangs,‚ÄĚ recalled Matt Landau, a New¬† Jerseyan who moved to Panama City in 2006 and now owns Los Cuatro¬† Tulipanes, a boutique hotel and apartment enterprise in Casco Viejo. A¬† stray bullet smashed into the Canal House, the hotel where I stayed, in¬† 2009, and Landau still warns guests not to wander beyond certain blocks.¬† But Casco Viejo does feel quite safe, even at night, when the¬† neighborhood comes alive with busy restaurants and rooftop bars. ‚ÄúI¬† can‚Äôt begin to tell you how much it has all changed,‚ÄĚ Landau said.
Old ‚ÄėCanal Zone‚Äô transforms
Eager to explore more of the city, I met up with Jessica Ramesch, the¬† Panama editor of International Living magazine. We piled into her¬† Hyundai and fought our way out to a former U.S. military base called¬† Clayton that sits along the canal in the northwest part of the city.
‚ÄúAll of this area was pretty much closed to Panamanians when the¬† Americans were here,‚ÄĚ she said as we crept through the Canal Zone, a¬† Phoenix-size former U.S. territory where Americans working and defending¬† the canal lived a strange, cross-world existence. ‚ÄúZonians,‚ÄĚ as they¬† were called, could get Guess jeans and Jif peanut butter just as on most¬† military bases abroad, but then monkeys might walk with the children to¬† school. Huge ships moved through the Miraflores Locks just to the west¬† of the road.
‚ÄúMany Zonians stayed and some of the bases have become these gorgeous neighborhoods,‚ÄĚ Ramesch said.
Clayton is one of them. Though it was now getting dark, I could see¬† community centers and signs for the City of Knowledge, a compound for¬† research, tech companies and nongovernmental organizations. We parked¬† near a soccer field and wandered toward a massive corotu tree where a¬† crowd had spread out blankets and lawn chairs. A band was warming up¬† near the trunk.
While much of the city‚Äôs night life unfolds along Calle Uruguay,¬† every full moon during the dry months hundreds of people head out to¬† Clayton to bang on Tupperware containers, buckets and anything else that¬† might make a noise. They do their best to follow the band ‚ÄĒ just a¬† group of friends, really ‚ÄĒ which plays pop, reggae and whatever else it¬† feels like.
‚ÄúWho here can drum?‚ÄĚ 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 had¬† quite the same wow factor as this bucket band gathered under an old¬† tree. I sipped cocktails at Barlovento, a new rooftop bar where slinky¬† women and V-shaped men swirled around in a cyclone of perfume and¬† cigarettes, and I shopped for tapestries made by Kuna Indians along a¬† waterfront paseo. A hike on a steep, carless road up a jungly hill in¬† the middle of the city stood out, but that‚Äôs because an anteater crossed¬† my tracks, and I‚Äôd never seen one of those before.
But here on the ground with wine and cheese and a fat moon hanging in¬† the trees, I wondered if a city needs to add up to make sense. As¬† absurd as Panama City can feel at times, it is certainly a lot of fun,¬† too, and between the cracks of all the chaos, these mini-miracles are¬† burbling through.
The Visitor recently reported on a news release from Tocmen S.A., the operator of our International Airport in Panama City.
Tocumen S.A. has released a new image of how the Tocumen¬† International Airport will look in 2016. The design of the Southern¬† Concourse, to be built by the Brazilian construction giant Norberto¬† Odebrecht, resembles that of a stealth jet, part of the United States‚Äô¬† ‚Äúinvisible‚ÄĚ super-fighter fleet.
As the regional air hub grows, it is taking a first-world turn. Some¬† $60 million were spent on the new Northern Concourse, which brought 12¬† more gates to Tocumen. In comparison, the Southern Concourse will cost¬† $674 million, but will integrate a new highway from the Southern¬† Corridor (Corredor Sur) to the airport, a new control tower and 8,000¬† square meters of duty free shopping.
When it is finished, Tocumen will boast 54 gates and be able to handle 18 million passengers, according to a statement.
Copa wins another¬† World Airline Award
Panama‚Äôs Copa Airlines has been named the ‚ÄúBest Airline of Central¬† America and the Caribbean,‚ÄĚ by the aviation research company Sky Trax.¬† It also received the award for the ‚ÄúAirline with the Best Cabin and¬† Airport Personnel in Central America and the Caribbean‚ÄĚ which recognizes¬† the good customer service it offers not only in the planes, but also at¬† airports.
The ‚ÄúWorld Airline Awards‚ÄĚ are considered the most prestigious of the¬† industry and they are a global reference of excellence in airlines.¬† Skytrax obtain these results through a survey in which millions of¬† passengers of different nationalities are interviewed in some 14 regions¬† of the world. This study evaluates the travel experience and measures¬† 35 aspects of customer satisfaction. More than 200 airlines, from the¬† smallest to the biggest are evaluated in this survey which takes 10¬† months to completed.
Air France to fly direct from Paris to Panama
The Dutch airline KLM has been flying direct from Amsterdam¬† (AMS/EHAM) to Panama city, Panama (PTY/MPTO) for several years and has¬† nearly a daily flight. KLM merged with Air France back in 2004 but so¬† far if you wanted to fly from Paris to Panama with KLM/Air France you¬† had to go through the Amsterdam airport.
As of November 25th, 2013 the French airline consortium Air France will be flying three times a week (Monday, Thursday and Saturday)direct from Charles de Gaulle airport (CDG / LFPG) .
Air France flights will be¬†arriving to Tocumen International Airport¬† at 18:30 local time (UTC-5) and departing Tocumen at 22:00 local time.
The aircraft¬†chosen by Air France will be their Boeing 777-200 ¬†with a capacity for 309 passengers.
In the first quarter of this year more than 5,000 French tourists¬† have visited Panama, some 10% more when compared to the same period last¬† year.
For what it is known the airline was originally going to fly with a¬† stopover in San Jose, Costa Rica as other airlines like KLM and Iberia¬† did in the distant past. However, the Panamanian Tourism Authority is¬† said to have paid 4.5 million dollars in a 3 year period¬†to help the¬† airline¬†with the decision to fly direct. This is a known well published¬† fact -rather than speculation- which they claim to have done in the past¬† with other airlines.
The good news is, with the new ongoing expansion of the Tocumen International airport and the upcoming¬†refurbishing of the old Rio Hato (in Cocle) and Enrique Jimenez airport in Colon¬†for¬†long/medium haul flights, there will be an ample choice of choice for tourists coming to Panama.
Melinda and I recently took our kids on vacation to the Panama Canal. I know it‚Äôs not exactly a typical vacation destination (and we did spend a few days at the beach afterward). But we had fun learning about how the canal was built ‚Äď that in itself is an amazing story of ingenuity and hard work ‚Äď and what it takes to keep things running smoothly today.¬†¬†Come To Panama & Turn YOUR Frown Upside Down!
Panama City has the distinction of being the only city in Latin America to have urban residential islands.
The total development, a project of Grupo Los Pueblos, will have two islands: West and East. The first one, which is almost completed, has a surface of 103,000 square meters or 10.3 hectares. It cost approximately $140 million. The second will measure 89,000 sqm or 8.9 hectares and construction will start at the end of the year.
The west island has 72 plots on which the owners can build single houses or duplexes. There will also be three story buildings.
The building of the West Island went through five stages. The first phase that began in June 2011 consisted in dredging the seafloor. Around 490.000 sqm of sea silt (49 hectares) were removed by a suction dredge with limited draft until it hit the rock bed.
The Dutch companies Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V and Delft Hydraulics are in charge of the dredging and filling of the rock base which forms the foundation of the islands. In 2012 the dredging works were finished and a second team on a barge with a bucket crane aboard measuring 14 cubic meters was used to remove the silt that in Panama Bay has a thickness of between three and five meters, from around the islands.
The second phase of the construction was to build a perimete dyke shaping the island, which was designed by Delft Hydraulics and with detailed engineering of Boskalis. The actual form of the island will allow the waves to dissipate on the breakwater and prevent the accumulation of sediments in the bay. Around 700,000 cubic meters of basaltic rock were used. The company in charge of this part of the transportation and installation of the rock was Boskalis, while Grupos Los Pueblos made the rocks available at a loading facility in Vacamonte.¬† Boskalis sourced the sand for the land reclamation from marine sand concessions south of Las Perlas using a large trailer suction hopper dredger. The sand filling of the island was completed in approximately 100 days only.
Heavy machinery was used to achieve this, including ten articulated trucks with a capacity of 30 to 35 tons each, a suction dredger and tractors which are just some of the equipment used to achieve this task.
This is an incredible project, demonstrating man’s resourcefulness when the necessity exists to create land and accommodate growth in a densely populated region.
I am often asked about crime in Panama and when someone starts to wave an article in front of me about someone who was held up at gun point and robbed saying ‚Äúlook at what happened in Panama‚ÄĚ, I tell them a couple of stories about my little ole neighborhood called Coconut Grove back in Florida.¬† Great neighborhood of $500,000 to $1,000,000 homes and within a mile of our old place $10,000,000 homes.¬† Back in Coconut Grove, I would too often hear about a couple walking home from the theatre or dinner that were held up by a young man with a glock pointed in their face demanding their jewelry and their money.¬† The one incident that sealed the deal for us and one of the reasons we came to Boquete, Panama was when my next door neighbor was brutally murdered along with her 3 year old son and unborn child by a crack addict looking for money and it happened¬† in broad daylight!¬†¬† Also, not to mention the rampant multiple murders in schools across the United States including one of the most shocking where many children were killed by a deranged teenager.¬† This is unheard of in Panama as it is in most other places in the world.
With that, I bring you a story about how we take things seriously here in Panama and are working to keep Panama as free of crime as possible in the expat communities and beyond. ¬† I also want to personally thank my friends here in Boquete that were instrumental in helping to take down some gang members out of Panama City that were terrorizing San Carlos on the coast near the City.
The story has appeared in a number of places but I like this one the best as it all started with our hero Rodny who is our fellow that mans the Boquete hot line of Alto al Crimen.
When in Doubt, Call Rodny
June 9, 2013
On Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 10:49AM a resident of Boquete called the Boquete Hot Line to report that they had been among the victims of a violent robbery late the previous evening at a remote bed & breakfast hotel, Rancho los Toros near San Carlos. They were attacked from the woods by ninja-style by men with masks and guns. All the guests and staff were tied up, guns held to their heads and they were beaten to varying degrees. But this was not the first time.
Almost exactly three months before, the same hotel was attacked in the same way by apparently the same gang. One of the attackers had used a stolen iPhone to take wonderful pictures of himself and his family, without realizing that they were being uploaded to iCloud and thus the owner. Still, the police investigation stalled and no arrests were made. With that one call to the Boquete Hot Line, their luck ran out.
When the Boquete Hot Line operator received the call at 10:49AM, his first action was to report the incident to Alto al Crimen board members. Within an hour, a private investigator, Martin Ferrara from Boquete, was dispatched to San Carlos and was on the job before the day was out. Another call was made to Roberto Chocolate in Santa Clara, near San Carlos. For the last year Alto al Crimen has been working with Roberto to establish an Alto al Crimen-style community policing operation called Neighbors Helping Neighbors. Roberto immediately took the lead in heading up the community response to this incident and announced a community meeting for Thursday June 6 at the very hotel where the attack occurred.
Roberto called on Carlos Espinosa, until recently lead attorney for the Policia National in Panama City and asked for his assistance. Carlos aided with follow up to make sure the cases were correctly handled. He quickly discovered that, within days the first case was about to be dropped ‚Äď because the original victims had not followed procedures correctly and took action to keep the case alive. More on Carlos later.
Over the next week, the private investigator assembled information about the case and determined who the suspected perpetrators were, residing both in Panama City and the local San Carlos area. ¬†The information he developed was turned over to the police.
Roberto Chocolate is a prodigious fund raiser. He immediately began asking local tourist-oriented businesses for donations, including real estate, restaurants and hotels. He wrote letters to the top government ministers for crime and tourism and had Carlos hand-deliver them. Local television stations were alerted to the upcoming meeting along with neighborhood watch organizations from Gorgona and el Valle de Anton. And of course, all of the expats were encouraged to attend the meeting. Mark and Martine Heyer attended on behalf of Alto al Crimen, bringing boxes of boat horns to help raise money.
The meeting got under way at Rancho los Toros at 5PM. After a call to order and introductions by Roberto Chocolate, short presentations were given by Alto al Crimen and other local community security groups. The Panamanian officials arrived fashionably late, but in force, with Marcelino Agilar, Deputy Attorney General of Panama leading the parade, followed by a Director of the Ministry of Tourism, the Commissioner of Tourist Police, the mayor of San Carlos, the police captain responsible for the district that includes San Carlos, along with their support staff. Mr. Agilar had wonderful news for the overflow crowd of more than 120 rowdy but respectful residents.
Thanks to the detective work turned over to the police by Martin Ferrara, on Wednesday they were able to arrest the ‚Äúpicture taker‚ÄĚ in Panama City, who promptly rolled over on his associates. On Thursday, four hours before the meeting, other gang members, including the leader, were arrested in the San Carlos area. We were informed that since these crimes involve violence and guns, they will not be getting out of jail any time soon ‚Äď unlike many criminals who are merely petty thieves who snatch big screens and laptops but do not engage in violence.
The police captain, with Carlos Espinosa as his interpreter, fielded all questions from the audience, in particular why it had taken 50 minutes for the police to respond when the police station is only 15 minutes away. It turns out that the police only have two cars to cover this large area, from Punta Chame to Rio Hato, more than an hour drive. On the night in question, they had already received a false alarm from the hotel‚Äôs automated alarm system, presumably caused by lightning, 20 minutes prior to the actual attack, ¬†When the real alarm came in, manually triggered only after the attack was over, their sole police car was on a call in another area and took 50 minutes to return and reach the hotel. The officials present pledged three new police cars and more cops for the area.
As a side note I also understand that more actions was taken as reported in this email.
The event was covered by the press including a TV camera crew.
They pointed out that the Ministry of Tourism spent $50M to promote the safety of Panama; they do not want to jeopardize that investment.
The group is developing a database of crimes to present to officials accurate figures of the crime in the area. Reporting a crime was covered and emphasized that if it isn‚Äôt reported, it makes the area crime appear less than it is and cannot be solved. Anyone that has been the victim of a crime is encouraged to contact Roberto Chocolate to add to the statistics collected.
Proof that the government is taking this seriously was the announcement of two new Designated Prosecutors that will be in San Carlos and Chame to expedite search warrants and local investigations. Many of the police are now learning English. Three more police cars, totaling six, and some of the new police academy graduates will be assigned to San Carlos. It was pointed out that San Carlos isn‚Äôt a sleepy fishing village anymore; it‚Äôs another Coronado, surrounded by many expensive resorts and gated developments.
All during the meeting, Roberto had people passing through the audience collecting donations. Every few minutes he would stand up and proclaim ‚ÄúSo and so has just donated $100,‚ÄĚ holding the cash up for all to see. Others distributed boat horns, with the proceeds going to support Neighbors Helping Neighbors. In all, for the week ending Thursday night, they collected $6,000 in donations and pledges. The funds will be used to set up their foundation, Neighbors Helping Neighbors, fund further investigation and get started on establishing their own Hot Line.
Earlier this year we announced our Alto al Crimen objective to have Rodny train other handicapped people to do the job he does for their own communities. Now we have an actual job requisition and they have the funding to support it. Rodny is researching how to identify candidates and we are planning the most effective way to do the training. We have had good success with our trial program in Volcan and know that the Hot Line service has great value wherever it is implemented.
Alto al Crimen has pledged to share with Neighbors Helping Neighbors all that we have learned in Boquete. We also know that we in Boquete will benefit greatly from the high-level government contacts that we were introduced to. The most immediate of these benefits is our prospective work with Carlos Espino, who is uniquely knowledgeable and works at the top levels of the Panamanian criminal justice system.
Alto al Crimen is working to bring Carlos Espinosa to Boquete to address the community on the functioning of the criminal justice system and upcoming changes to the criminal justice system and what they will mean for us all. In addition, he will address questions of how to expedite pending cases and make the existing system work better for us and help us further reduce the crime rate in Boquete. We expect this meeting to be of extraordinary interest and will be a meeting not to be missed.
Everyone at the meeting was incredibly impressed that one call to the Boquete Hot Line resulted in such a dramatic and ultimately productive response.
We at Alto al Crimen salute our fellow Boquete residents (who asked that their name not be used) for taking the initiative to make that call, even though they were not in Boquete and had no expectation of help. Their simple action set in motion a chain of events that in seven days ended a reign of terror and will benefit thousands of expats and Panamanians in our ongoing campaign to make Panama the safe and wonderful place that we know it can be.
This is a great report by Colliers and analysis on why US Ports must invest CapEx in transportation infrastructure to compete when the Panama Canal expansion is complete.
Here is KC Conway‚Äôs report
CapEx or Capsize: It‚Äôs make-or-break time for North America‚Äôs port cities. U.S. ports must secure $3.6 trillion by 2020 for infrastructure improvements to stay competitive as global trade patterns change in the wake of the Panama Canal Expansion. Currently, the U.S. ranks 23rd globally in infrastructure competitiveness.
Cities which don‚Äôt invest CapEx in their port infrastructure may be negatively affected economically. U.S. ports which invest in infrastructure linkages will be poised to receive larger post-Panamax vessels in 2015 and stand to benefit from accelerating growth in Latin America, Canada and Russia, while ports which are unwilling or unable to spend on infrastructure risk capsizing their local economies.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Panama City is the world’s third cheapest major city. Over the past decade, however, Panama has enjoyed the fastest growing economy in Latin America, bringing new luxury hotels, restaurants and services.
For the indecisive gourmand, Manolo Caracol serves a fantastic nine-course tasting menu for $36 per person. Blueberry ice cream with sugarcane honey (pictured) is a typical dessert.
In the old town of Casco Viejo, the Canal House has just three suites (from $320 per night) set around a large wooden staircase. The high-end guesthouse is owned by two sisters and loved for its quirky charm and homemade cooking.
Latin America’s first Waldorf Astoria hotel opened in March 2013. Book early and rooms start from $159, with that swanky pool included.
It’s not just about heavy shipping. The Panama Canal is one of the world’s true man-made marvels, and beautiful, too. Numerous land, water and aerial tours are available from Panama City.
Casa del Horno is a pretty boutique hotel on a colorful cobbled street in Casco Viejo. Surrounded by churches and plazas, it’s one of many colonial buildings to be renovated in recent years, making Casco Viejo feel a bit like Cartagena in neighboring Colombia.
The year-old Tantalo Hotel has brought a new sense of style to the capital. Each of its 12 rooms was designed by a different Panamanian artist. Designs range from gentle and flowery to seductive, with red and black walls and silver ceiling studs.
New everything seems to be sprouting up across the capital. Healthy competition is keeping standards high and Panama City now has a plethora of top-quality, luxury experiences for cut prices. Affluence is bringing sights like these yachts to Puerto Amador, a Panama City suburb.
Panama City is the Americas’ most affordable capital city, but luxury standards often prevail
Book early and you can stay at Waldorf Astoria Panama for $159
Cup of world’s most expensive coffee is $6.50. In Tokyo, same cup goes for up to $50
Panama has Latin America’s fastest growing economy
(CNN) — When the Economist Intelligence Unit released its most recent Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, the spotlight, as ever, fell on the world’s most expensive cities.
Tokyo came in on top of the pile of places that drain the color from your wallet, while Osaka and Sydney were second and third.
But what about the other end of the spectrum — how about a holiday where you can live it up without hemorrhaging cash?
The world’s cheapest city is Tehran, Iran, followed by Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Both have rich heritages, but Iran and Saudi Arabia are better known for generating controversial headlines than attracting tourists.
In third place, however, Panama City popped up. The Central American country is best known for hats and a canal — now we’ve got a reason to make sure our passport is up to date!
Over the past decade, Panama has enjoyed the fastest growing economy in Latin America.
As a result, new hotels and restaurants have sprouted across the capital. Healthy competition is keeping standards high, and Panama City has a plethora of top-quality, luxury experiences for cut prices.
Panama City is the most affordable capital city in the Americas.
Before stepping foot outside the airport, you’ve started saving. All tourists arriving at Tocumen International Airport are given travel insurance for 30 days. It is granted by the Panamanian Tourism Authority; the government has provided the service since it signed an $8 million deal with Assicurazioni Generali.
Next up: cash. The Panamanian balboa is linked with the dollar and the two currencies are interchangeable, so there’s no paying a commission for changing currency.
As for airport transfers, a standard taxi to the city center costs $28. You could arrive in style with a Panama Luxury Limousine for $88.50. The same service would cost $145 in Rio de Janeiro, or $427 in Tokyo.
More cents can be saved (and you can do your bit for the environment) by avoiding bottled water. Tap water in Panama City is safe to drink, not a given in the region.
Waldorf Astoria Panama
Latin America’s first Waldorf Astoria hotel opened in March 2013.
Book early and rooms start from $159.
Located on Calle Uruguay, aka “restaurant row,” the 248 rooms have metallic, glass and crystal decor designed by Miami-based Ba-Haus/KNF.
A stay here certainly doesn’t feel like skimping. The outdoor swimming pool is covered in gold tiles, there’s a swanky spa and each guest is given a personal concierge.
Overseen by head chef Kalych Padro Alvarado, four restaurants include a sushi bar and a French brasserie.
Founded in 1501, Panama was a Spanish colony for three centuries. Known as Casco Viejo, the historic part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Casa del Horno (Oven House) sits on a colorful cobbled street in Casco Viejo. Surrounded by churches and plazas, it’s one of many colonial buildings to be renovated in recent years, making Casco Viejo feel like Cartagena in neighboring Colombia.
Built in the 1850s, the eight-room hotel was originally a bakery. Stone walls remain, alongside art deco wooden furniture and all the modern fixtures, including LCD TVs and iPod docks.
The hotel’s cafe and restaurant are reached via the pavement, avoiding the clinical feel that can befall hotel restaurants.
Casa del Horno, Avenue B and Eighth Street; +507 212 0052; rooms from $250 for two-person suite
Big city, big lights, at Tantalo Hotel’s rooftop bar.
The year-old Tantalo Hotel has 12 rooms, each designed by a different Panamanian artist. Designs range from gentle and flowery to seductive, with red-and-black walls and silver ceiling studs.
Downstairs, a “living wall” is made from 900 lush plants. The restaurant dishes up Panama-style tapas, such as octopus with lemongrass and ginger. Cocktails, wine and several dishes to share will cost around $30 a head.
Each month, paintings in the communal areas change.
“The idea is for the fourth floor to be like an art gallery that you can wander around with a drink,” says assistant manager Catalina Bermudez.
The big, buzzing rooftop bar has panoramic views and hosts events including a monthly Cuban music evening.
Tantalo, Avenue B and Eighth Street; +507 262 4030; rooms from $120
Canal House is a creaky 19th-century mansion in Casco Viejo, and checking in feels like staying with a stately aunt. With just three suites set around a large wooden staircase, this high-end guesthouse is owned by two sisters and loved for its quirky charm and homemade cooking. It was called “the finest accommodation that exists in Panama,” by Panama 980 magazine.
Canal House, Calle 5a Este; +507 228-1907; rooms from $195, suites from $320
Dining and nightlife
Restaurante Angel (Via Argentina No. 6868, El Cangrejo; +507 263 6411) is the city’s special occasion Spanish restaurant. You’ll get impeccably prepared seafood, beef, lamb and rabbit in an elegant setting with crisp service for around $20-25 per person, not including drinks.
There’s big food and big atmosphere for reasonable prices at Las Bovedas (Plaza Francia; +507 228 8058), a French restaurant set in the arched vaults of a 300-year-old fort in Casco Viejo. Fresh seafood, steaks, snails (it’s a signature dish) and great service are the hallmarks at this dressy classic.
Blueberry ice cream with sugar cane honey, from Manolo Caracol.
Panamanian food is a mix of European, Asian and African tastes. The best way to experience the fusion is at Maito (Calle 50, Coco del Mar; +507 391 4657). It’s not often you order plantain hash with fried ceviche and come out smiling. Then there’s the ropa vieja main of shredded beef with a goat cheese sauce. Panamanian chef Mario Castrell√≥n trained in Barcelona and returned to his hometown with a mission to start a “new gastronomy” inspired by the canal — the idea being that the waterway literally brings these different influences to the city.
For the indecisive gourmand, Manolo Caracol (Avenida Central and Calle 3, +507 228 4640) serves a set nine-course tasting menu for $36 per person. Busy and smart, yet relaxed, the open kitchen churns out seafood, meat and vegetable dishes made with local ingredients, the majority of which come straight from chef Caracol’s farm. Highlights include seafood bisque, corn tortilla with chorizo, and coconut fish curry with yuca tortillas.
Not exactly luxury but tasty and cheap all the same, Mercado del Marisco seafood market (Avenida Balboa and Calle Eloy Alfaro) is a great place to wander. When Anthony Bourdain came to Panama, this was his first stop. Here you’ll find rows of al fresco stalls selling ceviche for $1.25 a cup. There’s also an upstairs restaurant with a larger menu with hearty fish stews and filleted sea bass.
New Casco Viejo coffeehouse Bajareque sells the world’s most expensive coffee, Geisha, for a reasonable $6.50 a cup. Panama is the world’s only producer of this rare coffee, which typically retails for $172.50 per kilo. Fitting for its name, Geisha coffee mainly sells in Japan and costs $50 a cup at Tokyo coffee shops like Horiguchi Coffee.
The primary nightlife spots are Calle Uruguay and Casco Viejo, both of which are lined with places to sample Panama’s four national beers, Panama, Balboa, Suarana and Atlas, for a couple of dollars.
In Casco Viejo, Habana Panama (Calle Eloy Alfaro y Calle 12 Este; +507 212 0152), isn’t just the hottest dance spot in the city, it’s an atmospheric salsa hall that recalls the elegance of old Cuba and Ricky Ricardo style. Live bands typically don’t hit the stage until midnight. For a typical $10 cover you’ll find fewer better shows (or more fun) anywhere.
Then there’s Barlovento (Calle 10 A; +507 6613 4345), a tropical-style rooftop bar where the beautifuls hang. With views over Casco Viejo (rather than the Panama City skyline over at T√°ntalo) and a DJ playing a mix of electronic music and Latin beats, the place is pumping on the weekends. Again there’s a $10 cover charge (if you’re male that is; women enter free) but you’d easily pay a $25 cover for the same deal in Mexico City.
The Panama Canal is one of the world’s top man-made attractions.
The oldest section of the city, Panama Viejo was burned to the ground in the late 17th century by British pirate (or privateer, depending who you ask) Sir Henry Morgan.
The crumbling remains of towers, forts and houses run along the coast waiting to be explored. The visitors center has a model showing the city before Morgan showed up.
Panama Viejo; +507 226 8915; $3 for museum, $4 for ruins, $6 for both; open Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
The Panama Canal took 250,000 people more than 10 years to build (not counting the original failed French-led effort), transports 40 boats each day (taking eight to 10 hours per transit) and costs an average of $85,000 per vessel.
Luckily, tours are a little less, and a partial transit with Canal & Bay Tours costs $135 per person, including breakfast, lunch and transfer though two sets of locks.
The Panama Canal celebrates its centenary in 2014, and to mark the occasion it’s undergoing a $5.25 billion modernization and expansion.
Progress is best viewed from above. Air Charter Panama arranges one-hour helicopter tours covering the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the canal from $749 for three passengers in a Robinson R44.
“A volcanic crater?” I queried, my eyebrow raised with¬† obvious interest. “With a town inside it!?” I considered this for a¬† moment, still not quite sure if I had heard correctly.
Though I¬† was lying prone on a beach chair, pi√Īa colada in hand, the earnest young¬† man holding the brochure for his tour company now had my full¬† attention. My wife Fionna who had initiated the conversation was¬† standing beside him, having just returned from a swim in the azure blue¬† ocean stretched before me. Our two children, Maya, 8 and Liam, 6, were¬† of course oblivious to our conversation and were engaged in a¬† boisterous, laughter-filled body surfing contest in the gentle waves¬† washing up on our sandy beach.
“Yes boss. The second largest inhabited dormant crater in the world”, came the reply from Manuel.
“It’s called the Anton Valley, no more than a 45-minute drive from here.”
Now,¬† I think full disclosure is warranted here: our reason for coming to¬† Panama was of singular purpose … to enjoy the sun, sand and surf at a¬† beach resort in a beautiful tropical setting. And as I lay sipping my¬† cold beverage on the first day of our trip under a scorching sun with¬† the temperature in the mid-30s, my initial thought was mission¬† accomplished.
As we would learn over the course of the week¬† though, Panama had much more to offer – and we were under no illusion¬† that we were doing more than scratching the surface in our relatively¬† brief stay.
The Anton Valley was indeed a great half-day excursion¬† into the jungle. The crater is about six kilometres in diameter and had¬† been formed roughly 300,000 years ago. Today, it is a lush, verdant¬† rainforest complete with the small town of El Valle situated within. We¬† went swimming at the base of a waterfall, though I must come clean …¬† I’ve seen bigger waterfalls along the side of the Sea to Sky Highway.¬† However, it did empty into a beautiful clear, green natural pool that we¬† all delightfully jumped into for a refreshing dip.
Perhaps the¬† most interesting find we made was only a 15-minute walk down the beach¬† from our resort. In 1989, the American military invaded Panama and¬† captured the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega. Twenty-four years¬† later, Noriega’s ruined, graffiti-covered residence is still just¬† sitting there, quite literally steps from the beach. We were able to¬† walk through all the rubble-strewn rooms, and though we were tempted, we¬† dared not climb the crumbling spiral staircases that were still¬† (barely) standing.
Like many people I’m sure, the one thing we did¬† know about Panama before we embarked on our trip, is that there is a¬† rather famous canal there. The Panama Canal was built in 1913 and has¬† served the world as an invaluable shipping route, giving ocean-going¬† vessels the option of not having to voyage around the southern tip of¬† South America. The canal itself is 77 kilometres long and connects the¬† Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. There is an elevation difference¬† of 26 metres along the canal, and herein lies its most impressive¬† feature: a series of three locks that allow ships to be raised and¬† lowered to traverse the waterway.
We were¬† fortunate enough to be standing on the observation deck of the¬† Miraflores Lock just as a gargantuan cargo ship passed through. It was¬† lowered through the lock and gate system and was allowed to continue on¬† its journey like it was nothing more than one of the toy plastic ships¬† Liam plays with at bath time. The Panama Canal is an absolute¬† engineering marvel.
The most surprising aspect of the whole trip¬† was the country’s capital, Panama City. Home to 1.5 million inhabitants -¬† roughly 40 per cent of the country’s population – its incredible¬† skyline resembles a somewhat smaller version of Hong Kong or Dubai.
In¬† 1999, the Canal and associated revenue were brought under sole control¬† of the Panamanian government – and at an average toll of $55,000 US per¬† ship, this obviously adds up. It was quite evident that these profits¬† have greatly fuelled Panama City’s development and banking boom.
It is safe to say that our preconceived notions of what a Central American city looks like were completely turned on its ear.
We¬† were greeted by amazing modern architecture and design at almost every¬† turn even as we toured the gorgeous colonial old town. To us, this area¬† of the city had a bit of the personality of Havana – minus the ”50sera¬† automobiles.
While we certainly received our fill of sunshine,¬† heat and beach bars, it’s the Panama we discovered off the resort that¬† will continue to resonate in our minds long after our tans fade
See how the gold and silver treasures of Panama are made by virtually the same technique as the ancient pre-Colombian goldsmiths. Scheduled tours are at 9.30 am. and 2.00 p.m. Monday to Friday and cost $10 per person. Children under twelve get in free. The tour includes beverage, snack and “goodie bag”. To make a reservation call 271-0033. Visit the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center
Located at Gamboa on the fabled Pipeline Road. Call 264-6266.