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. We had met over email 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,” Fabrega said. “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. 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.
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.
“You drive in and see all these skyscrapers and you have to wonder, is it just a mirage or does it have any substance?” Johann Wolfschoon, an architect and designer, told me. “What we need to be is amazing. Not amazing for Panama, but amazing.”