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What to Do in Panama: The American Airlines Checklist

Article Summary:

Nearly 100 years after digging the greatest commercial gateway on earth, Panama aims even higher, says Time magazine’s Joel Stein who was on assignment to discover Panama for American Airlines inflight magazine, American Way.

Photo Credit: American Airlines

Original Article Text From American Way Magazine:

Growth Spurt

Nearly 100 years after digging the greatest commercial gateway on earth, Panama aims even higher.

Walking around a growing city makes you feel more alive, like hiking through brush instead of along a trail. I’m guessing at that, since I’ve never walked through brush. I wouldn’t have gone to a growing city, either — only I had no idea that’s what Panama City has become.

I expected Panama City to be sleepy and old: wide-brimmed hats, hammocks and excessive pride over a technological feat that’s nearly 100 years old. This is not what I’m seeing. I haven’t been to Shanghai. I’ve never seen Dubai. I was too young to see Las Vegas in the 1960s. But I’m finally seeing a city grow in fast-forward: buildings crawling up like silver sea monkeys; new infrastructure struggling to keep up with traffic; foreigners flocking to open factories, hotels and restaurants; construction vehicles blocking street after street. With a 10.5 percent growth rate, Panama’s economy is expanding faster than China’s. And if you told me that’s where I am, I would believe it.

Leaving the airport, the driver points out all the things a proud citizen from a newly first-world city would: the 70-story Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower Panama, the 66-story Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis, the Le Méridien Panama — all new. The skyscrapers in the banking district. The enormous Albrook Mall, where Jennifer Lopez recently shopped. The almost-finished Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo. The $1.6 billion subway project, scheduled to open to riders in 2014 to fix some of this first-world traffic we’re stuck in. The hospital that does some of the most cutting-edge stem-cell treatments in the world and dots the city with American medical tourists here to get some of the best treatment available.

A half-hour later, our driver drops off my lovely wife, Cassandra; my 3-year-old son, Laszlo; and me at The Westin Playa Bonita, an enormous, beautiful convention hotel that opened this past January. The rooms are modern and the views of the ocean and the boats lining up for the canal are fantastic. Though as every guest I meet tells me, as if they alone had come up with the best joke possible about the hotel, the playa isn’t so bonita. The nice beaches are either on the harder-to-reach Caribbean side or four hours away at either Peninsula Azuero — the Tuscany of the Americas — or the beautiful, untouched San Blas Islands. There are three infinity pools, one swim-up bar and one pool bar — and lots of free American food: hot dogs, pizza, nachos. It’s also where I find out Panama uses American currency. What was more: These people love Americans, mostly because we took out their dictator, Manuel Noriega, in 1989’s Operation Just Cause, and gave back their canal as promised in 2000.

The woman checking us in snaps hospital-style bracelets on our wrists to indicate that we signed up for the “all-inclusive” package, allowing us to endlessly drink free at the hotel’s many bars and endlessly eat free at the buffets, which overlap to fill up nearly 24 hours. My son loves it all but, even though I’m getting my hammock and wide-brimmed hat, I still don’t feel like I’ve seen anything Panamanian.

The next morning, we do what everyone has done on their first day in Panama for nearly 100 years: We see the canal. Container ships, it turns out, are way bigger than I guessed they would be; railroad cars are stacked so high on their decks that it looks like a strong wind or wave would send them tumbling into the sea as they go through the canal’s locks. (If you want to take a big ship through a narrow, shallow river that goes up or down a mountain, you need to move it up or down via locks. Locks are like little elevators; they’re basically baths that fill up to the ship’s level and then empty to lower them, or vice versa, which is both cool and peaceful to watch.)

There are actually three sets of locks (one Atlantic and two Pacific), and Panama is building additional locks that can handle newer, even wider ships … because this is Panama City and they are building everything. We walk through the Panama Canal Museum — note to the minister of tourism: Maybe, in the exhibits of local flora and fauna, take down the display of giant bed bugs — and sit in a theater to watch the English version of a film about the building of the canal, which is very, very kind to America. Then we watch the ships pass by while dining at the International Miraflores Restaurant at the canal’s visitors center, where I feel like I’m in a photo of my grandparents — sitting in the same chairs, in the same room, eating the same buffet, waving the same wave at the people on the vessels below. I feel nostalgic for a time when lazy tourism was actually active tourism. Then I need to leave.

The next day, our driver takes us 30 minutes from the hotel, over a one-lane wooden bridge, past the prison where Noriega now resides, to a town called Gamboa, at the entrance to the Soberanía National Park, which is a huge rain forest reserve. While waiting for our tour to leave, we get a drink at the big, cabin-like lobby of the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which — along with the modern hotel — consists of houses from the 1930s where officers from the Panama Canal Administration once lived. We take a boat tour through Gatun Lake and pull up to see crocodiles, monkeys and iguanas, all of which greatly impress my son. Then we take an aerial tram through jungle trees, where we see sloths and hear woodpeckers and jungle birds and generally get to see all that Sting has saved. We climb ramps in a wooden lookout that seems like it was built by M.C. Escher, until finally we’re at a platform high above the jungle looking, yet again, at that canal. To protect the forest, you can’t go hiking in it, so this is as close as you can get to seeing what’s going on below, all of which seemed far more like paradise than the dank, squirminess I pictured a rain forest to be.

You can do, at most, only two things in Panama on one day, even though each event should take only an hour. That’s partly because the heat wears you out and partly because Panama City traffic is awful. So, after the tours, we were barely able to check out the Amador Causeway, a long, scarcely trafficked new road on the water outside of the city where the Gehry museum is being built. Right now, though, it’s just a bunch of Florida-style tourist restaurants and ice-cream places. We rent a four-wheeled bicycle and pedal Laszlo to Mi Ranchito Restaurant, a Panamanian restaurant where we have some crisp Balboa beers and passable shrimp. Then, of course, we eat and drink again at the hotel. Because we’ve got wristbands that command us to.

Finally, on day three, we find Panama. We head to Casco Viejo, which all our friends say is the cool part of town. But when the cabbie drops us off, we’re sure this is not what our friends were talking about. It looks like a disaster zone: torn-up streets, construction vehicles blocking every direction, buildings torn down except for their facades. It has, for no discernible reason, the smell of danger. I was told Casco Viejo looked like New Orleans — and the colorful colonial architecture and wrought-iron balconies do. But it also, to some degree, resembles New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

As we push Laszlo’s stroller around craters in the brick streets and the shock of all this construction passes, Casco Viejo slowly­ gets charming. It reminds Cassandra of Prague in 1995: Expats from the U.S. are opening cool bars, restaurants, ­galleries and hotels. There’s a feeling that something is happening here. Across from the remnants of the Santo Domingo church, which burned down in 1756, we duck into an alley that contains a cool cafe and yoga studio. Right near a street that is patrolled because it, improbably, contains the presidential palace, we come across a square where ­attractive, well-dressed European couples sit at tables drinking wine from DiVino, a wine bar some Italian guys have opened. There’s a bar called La Vecindad that’s owned by a former member of a now-defunct Panamanian street gang, a performance space with a bathroom made from recycled computers and a huge Japanese-style fish market where you can get ceviche. On the raised walkways around the beautiful Plaza de La Independencia, which houses the gorgeous old National Theatre, indigenous women sell pouches with colorful patterns. Old and new are shoved together in a way that reminds me of Rome.

Casco Viejo has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means those building facades can’t be torn down. It’s the old part of Panama City — or at least the oldest part after Capt. Morgan (who in real life was even scarier than his current likeness on rum bottles) sacked and burned what was then Panama City in 1671 and is now called Panama Viejo and exists only as a quick tourist stop of the ruins.

We walk into Tantalo Hotel and go to the rooftop bar, where we look across at spindly church steeples, restored colonial buildings and battered remnants of roofs. Just across the water we can see the shiny new Panama City. It feels like we’re reporting live on CNN, only we’re holding London-quality cocktails and great-looking young Central Americans walk by as if they just arrived from South Beach. Downstairs in the restaurant, vintage light bulbs hang from a tangle of ­cool-looking wires over striking, colorful floor tiles. For dinner we consider eating here, as well as at Manolo Caracol, which offers a multicourse prix fixe meal and is the foodie spot. But we’ve got a 3-year-old who doesn’t read Bon Appétit. So we go to Las Clementinas, an old Spanish-looking restaurant and hotel co-owned by American K.C. Hardin, who also owns the nearby, more modern Canal House. The waiter gives us an iPad to appease our son as we wait for an appetizer of plantains and brie that is far, far better than it sounds. The gaucho — a kind of a Caribbean risotto — is great too. We look out the windows onto the night and see a truck come by, blasting mosquito-killing chemicals from a hose straight into the air as couples walk by. Police next door have large guns strapped to them. Poor families, packing a night market just blocks away, live alongside American hipsters. Right next to abandoned buildings are signs for free Wi-Fi. The place feels like chaos and excitement and nothing like our hotel.

On the way home, we pass yet another of these insanely painted, psychedelic city buses, called Diablos Rojos. They’re independently owned, and every driver competes to throw the best party, with blinking lights, music and, on the outside, murals of half-naked women or famous singers. It’s as if Ken Kesey designed Las Vegas’ public-transportation system. The Diablos Rojos are being phased out, replaced by modern, larger, city-operated Metrobuses. There’s a small movement by the expats to save them, since they give the city so much flavor, but most Panamanians are thrilled to have ­air-conditioned buses that are way less likely to kill them. It’s another example of the tension between old and new.

We recover the next day at the hotel with omelets and frozen margaritas and by watching salespeople play water volleyball in the pool. Out of nowhere, three teenage employees of the hotel, wearing booty shorts, blast some music and perform something by the pool that I can’t imagine is a native Panamanian folkloric dance. We are ready, once again, to venture outside the hotel, free buffets be damned.

So for dinner we finally head into Panama City itself. Amid all the cold, gleaming skyscrapers, we’re surprised to find a living city. Though I am tempted to check out boxer Roberto Duran’s restaurant, we have dinner at La Posta, an old plantation-style house that makes the best octopus dish — serving it in three styles — I’ve ever had. The homemade pasta is also great. Panama, thanks to the canal, has had nearly 100 years to soak up a bunch of culinary cultures so that it’s become a fusion of Spanish, American, Japanese, Italian, and Central and South American styles. And much like everything else here, it feels like a new, better Panamanian cuisine is about to emerge.

After dinner, we push Laszlo’s stroller down streets with gleaming condos, expensive stores and Euro-looking discothèques. I have no doubt that he’ll come back to Panama City as an adult, and it will be finished: a vibrant metropolis with a small, charming old section where the cool people go, just like every other city. I’m glad we saw it now.

Link to Original Article:

From American Way Magazine

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