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.”
It was late March, my first day of five in the city, and over the next few days 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 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 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 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 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,” he said.
Hardin, the developer, has been one of the major players behind that change. His firm buys property in Casco Viejo, renovates it and sells it for about $2,500 per square meter on average. Along the way, he builds affordable housing and works to get kids off the streets by offering jobs that ultimately improve the neighborhood. “Revitalization always revolves around a culture, not an industry,” Hardin said. “You need a place with good bones that’s affordable with spaces that people can use to explore — pioneering restaurants, galleries — and then you get events around those spaces. That’s what’s happening here. So yes, it’s like Miami, but Miami in maybe 1989.”
“Panama is not a culture that’s built around the table,” said David Henesy, a New York restaurateur, who in 2005 started La Posta, a contemporary restaurant in the Calle Uruguay area that focuses on local, environmentally sustainable ingredients. It can still be difficult to find high-quality foods to work with, he said. “If you want an heirloom tomato or an organic pig, you pretty much have to do it yourself.”
Mario Castrellon is trying to do just that. After studying cooking in Spain, Castrellon returned to Panama in 2005 to work under Henesy. In 2009 he started his own venture, Maito, which now competes alongside a dozen other worthy places like Las Clementinas or Tantalo Kitchen, both in Casco Viejo.
Maito was nearly full when 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.
“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, 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.”
Eager to explore more of the city, I said a hasty goodbye to Fabrega and 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 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.
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, 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, too.