Explore the exciting rebirth of Panama City

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’s modern replacement: a forest of green,  blue and yellow glass skyscrapers that sifted the metallic Central  American sky into great 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.

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. “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 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’s 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.

 

“Panama was this compressed spring just ready to go,” said Keyes  Christopher Hardin, a New York lawyer-turned-developer working to  restore the city’s old colonial area. “When 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.”

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’d 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’s  abstract paintings with bright yellows, blues and reds hung on the  concrete 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.”

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’s Ark-like vibrancy prevails. The Chinese run so many small  groceries here that Panamanians simply call the shops “Chinos.” 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. “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, 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. “I  can’t begin to tell you how much it has all changed,” Landau said.

 

Old ‘Canal Zone’ 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.

 

“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. 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’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 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’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.

 

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Live large, pay small in Panama City

By Gabriel O’Rorke, for CNN
May 17, 2013 — Updated 0645 GMT (1445 HKT)

 

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
 
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

 

  • 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.

World’s most expensive cities

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.
Panama City is the most affordable capital city in the Americas.

Logistics

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.

Hotels

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.

Waldorf Astoria Panama, 47th and Uruguay Streets; rooms from $159; +507 294 8000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 294 8000 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting

Casa del Horno

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 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 212 0052 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting ; rooms from $250 for two-person suite

Big city, big lights, at Tantalo Hotel\'s rooftop bar.
Big city, big lights, at Tantalo Hotel’s rooftop bar.

Tantalo Hotel

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 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 262 4030 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting ; rooms from $120

Canal House

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 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 228-1907 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting ; rooms from $195, suites from $320

Dining and nightlife

Restaurante Angel (Via Argentina No. 6868, El Cangrejo; +507 263 6411 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 263 6411 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting ) 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 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 228 8058 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting ), 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.
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 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 391 4657 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting ). 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 Castrellón 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 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 228 4640 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting ) 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 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting +507 212 0152 FREE  end_of_the_skype_highlighting ), 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 Tántalo) 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 Panama Canal is one of the world’s top man-made attractions.

Attractions:


Panama Viejo

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 Canal

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.

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