Skyscrapers on the coast of the bay in Panama City.

, New York Times

Modern Panama City is on the rise

  • Article by: TIM NEVILLE
  • New York Times
  • May 10, 2013 - 11:31 AM

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 British privateer Sir Henry Morgan eventually sacked in 1671. Ahead of us rose Old Panama’s modern replacement: a forest of green, blue and yellow glass skyscrapers that sifted the Central American sky into metallic vertical columns.

“You’re going to hear a lot about identity, who we are and where we are going,” said Fabrega, a 37-year-old artist, writer and partner in a creative think tank called DiabloRosso, which promotes emerging artists in Panama. We had met via e-mail a few weeks earlier while I was searching for creative residents willing to show me their city, and moments ago he had picked me up at the airport.

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.

“My generation inherited this blank canvas,” said Fabrega, his salt-and-pepper hair fluttering slightly in the Audi’s air-conditioning. “Now we have the chance to make it our own.”

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 from brands such as Trump, Hard Rock and Waldorf-Astoria, with 4,582 more in the pipeline, according to STR Global, a London-based agency that tracks hotel markets. A new biodiversity museum designed by Frank Gehry is nearly complete. The country’s first modern dance festival unfolded last year, the same year Panama held its first international film festival. The country even has its own year-old microbrewery.

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 expected to double its capacity and fuel even more economic growth.

Panama still struggles with crime and poverty, but foreigners are clearly intrigued with how things are unfolding. In 1999 just 457,000 international tourists visited Panama, World Bank figures show. In 2011, more than 1.4 million came. 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.

During my trip in late March, 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’d spend time with locals and expats.

For now, Fabrega wanted to show me his interpretation of some of the changes afoot. We peeled off the freeway, turned down a boulevard and entered Costa del Este, a section of the city with a skyline that looked like a concrete comb. Our destination was a pop-up gallery inside an unfinished retail space at the bottom of a new white skyscraper. Sixteen of Fabrega’s abstract paintings with bright yellows, blues and reds hung on the walls in an exhibition he called “Banana Republic.” It didn’t 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.

“This is Panama,” Fabrega said with a shrug. “It’s beautiful, but it makes no sense.”

From there, Fabrega dropped me off in Casco Viejo, a colonial neighborhood on the far edge of the city. The area, which is sometimes called Casco Antiguo, is a warren of brick streets, leafy plazas and Spanish colonial rum bars blasting the 2/4 beats of cumbia. I wandered around to get my bearings — seven squares, six churches, one fine-looking ice cream shop — and then checked into my hotel, the Canal House.

Vibrant collection of cultures

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 Casco Viejo, an eclectic vibrancy prevails. The Chinese run so many small groceries here that Panamanians simply call the shops “Chinos.” The French left their mark with a Parisian-style apartment building displaying 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. “I was definitely nervous about coming here at first, with the shootings and the gangs,” 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 in 2009, and Landau still warns guests not to wander beyond certain blocks. But Casco Viejo does feel safe, even at night, when the neighborhood comes alive with busy restaurants and rooftop bars. “I can’t begin to tell you how much it has all changed,” he said.

To understand the turnaround on a personal level, I met with Nicolas Mercado, a former gang member who now runs a popular bar called La Vecindad. With a shaved head and thick, muscled arms, he welcomed me in a courtyard at the end of a long entryway lined with artful graffiti. In the early days of contemporary Panama, or 1999, Mercado was 16 and the head of a gang. One day a man came by, ostensibly to buy some marijuana, but he shot Mercado with a pistol four times instead. The man got away, and Mercado mostly recovered.

“I knew I had to get out,” he said, showing me the scar of a bullet wound on his hand.

Chefs raise the dining scene

I had been inside the Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum — a third-floor exhibition in a red-roof building just off the Plaza Mayor — reading about the hazards of building the canal, when Fabrega picked me up the next day. I still wanted to explore the city’s music, nature and food scene, so we stopped-and-go’ed our way to a restaurant called Maito in Coco del Mar, a largely residential area about three miles away.

The chef would have to work hard to impress me. “Starchy, sweet, fried and basic,” is the way Patrick Maurin, the French executive chef at Trump Ocean Club, described Panamanian food, and few would argue otherwise.

But local chefs such as Mario Castrellon are trying to change that. After studying cooking in Spain, Castrellon started his own venture, Maito, which now competes alongside a dozen other worthy places like Las Clementinas or Tantalo Kitchen, both in Casco Viejo.

Fabrega and I found a table under paddle fans next to a window. Outside, a gardener tended to raised beds that were bushy with Thai basil, cilantro and other herbs that show up in the food.

“No one knows what Panamanian cuisine really is,” Castrellon, who is 30, said later. “People can name maybe four traditional dishes, but we eat a bit of everything here — Chinese, French, African, Spanish, Colombian, American.”

Fabrega and I shared a sea bass hot dog — fine, flaky fish rolled into a sausage shape and lightly battered and fried — which was far more delicious than it sounds. We tore into an order of ropa vieja, literally “old clothes,” a traditional meal of shredded beef and sauce that Castrellon has invigorated with spicy peppers, annatto and goat cheese salsa.
The crowning analogy came with the octopus. The creature had been candied, set upon a garbanzo bean paste, and garnished with cilantro flowers and other herbs. It was sweet, spicy, succulent.

“Chinese glaze, Spanish beans, local herbs,” Castrellon said. “Put all these elements together, and now you have a Panamanian octopus.”

Former military base renewed

Eager to explore more of the city, I said a goodbye to Fabrega and met up with Jessica Ramesch, the Panama editor of International Living magazine. We made our way to a former U.S. military base called Clayton that sits along the canal in the northwest part of the city.

“All of this area was pretty much closed to Panamanians when the Americans were here,” 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. “Zonians,” 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.

“Many Zonians stayed and some of the bases have become these gorgeous neighborhoods,” Ramesch said.

Clayton is one of them. 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’s 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 — just a group of friends, really — which plays pop, reggae and whatever else it feels like.

“Who here can drum?” 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. 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, car-less road up a jungly hill in the middle of the city stood out, but that’s because an anteater crossed my tracks, and I’d 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.

As if on cue, the bucket band’s disparate racket gradually fell into sync until — no way — “The Girl From Ipanema” emerged. It was messy and loud and no one knew how it would end, which made it all the more amazing.

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