Go with the flow in Panama

 

Go Citybreak:Panama City is a busy mix of old and new, rich and poor, old Colonial buildings and high-rises, Latin traditions and US money – as well as amazing biodiversity by the Canal, says Carolyn McCarthy

PANAMA CITY is a sunny destination with complexity: a cocktail of roiling history, brisk commerce and Latin culture. Long before its glittering skyline went up, explorers straggled around the isthmus in pursuit of the Pacific, pirates made frequent pit stops and foreign governments gambled on the biggest dig of all time – the Panama Canal.

Grossing nearly $4 million a day, the canal, now in the hands of Panamanians, has made Panama both the richest Central American city and the most connected.

But it would be an error to assume Panama’s treasures are all bankable. Some three million years ago, the isthmus rose to connect two continents and the resulting land bridge invited astounding biodiversity. About 125 of Panama’s species are found nowhere else in the world. Just outside this capital city of a half-million, in the rainforest lining the canal, sloths and toucans skirt in the shadows of mammoth container ships.

It is precisely this energy – call it prehistoric meets modern – which makes Panama City a fascinating place to explore. There are other reasons too. It’s a surprisingly manageable destination that is flush with imported goods, has a currency of US dollars and where English is widely spoken. With its busy port and hub, the city gives off the air of possibility. In response, US citizens and Europeans, often entrepreneurs or retirees, have started to join its already rich mix of immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean and other parts of Latin America.

In Panama City, the meek do not inherit the earth. Bars and clubs just get going around midnight. Step across a downtown street and the steaming grill of a red devil leaps to greet you. Known as diablos rojos, these oft-cursed public buses are old American school buses reincarnated, sprayed psychedelic hues and named for a voluptuous pop star or the driver’s adored offspring: either may be painted on the back.

Vendors compete with jackhammers in a thick cement tangle of casinos, banks, fast food chains and demolitions looking like too many pulled teeth.

The historic Casco Viejo is the peninsula where Panama City re-established itself after the crippling pirate raids that destroyed the original city further north. Many compare it to Havana. Equal parts run-down and restored, its colonial architecture, narrow passages and toothy cobblestones are made for wandering, not fast traffic. Ruins of a crumbling convent and sidewalk café tables share space with kids tumbling over soccer balls and thumping reggaeton. In contrast to the city’s many casinos and air-conditioned mega malls, it feels, finally, real.

A Unesco World Heritage Site, Casco Viejo (or the Casco), is seeking to recover its original glory. Though the neck of the peninsula is still considered too seedy for visitors, revitalisation has hit full swing at the tip.

Some of the best restaurants in the city are taking up residence, in addition to the Canal House, the city’s most lauded boutique hotel. But one of the first businesses to reclaim the Casco was Luna’s Castle, an American-run backpacker hostel which is near a handful of open-air bars and jazz clubs.

On any given morning (or afternoon), a dozen lodgers from places such as Sydney, North Carolina and Tel Aviv gather over a free pancake breakfast. Discussion goes from local clubs and their steep cover charges to reports on nearby surf spots. The dining room looks out on the original city wall, a gorgeous curving arc overgrown with tumbling vegetation, and a building that’s been condemned.

ANOTHER TORRENTIALforce for neighbourhood renewal has been the jazz great Danilo Pérez, who spent his childhood studying the piano at the National Conservatory in the Casco. His Panama Jazz Festival, held every January, has generated over $1 million in youth scholarships via the Danilo Pérez Foundation.

“To offer opportunities,” said Pérez, “is also to change a family, a neighbourhood, a city and perhaps a country.”

After a week of city-wide performances, the jazz festival’s grand finale is a free public concert at the Plaza de la Independencia. Thousands funnel into one city block for a day and night of African rhythms, brass and bluesy vocals. On sidewalks, toddlers who are sticky from shaved ice keep the beat alongside tourists and locals. The scene is happy madness. Here, on the very spot where Panama declared its independence in 1903, the city is as free a place as any.

The 17th-century Casco is very much a living neighbourhood, though one defined by contrast. Near the heavily guarded presidential palace and restored national theatre, local boys cannonball off an abandoned building into the sea. Along the splendid esplanade of Paseo de las Bovedas, indigenous Kuna women from the San Blas archipelago sell molas: squares of intricate embroidery. Wearing bangles and frilled blouses, these four-foot islanders may be taken for quaint but they are astute traders, dealing with buyers with a smattering of English and steely patience.

History lurks everywhere. Under the seafront promenade, dungeons once used by the Spanish now house art galleries and cafes. Take a walk on the gorgeous Plaza Francia to San José church, where there’s a gold Baroque altar that survived the attack of pirate Henry Morgan by being painted black. A priest had dismissed the altar to Morgan as a cheap replacement of the genuine article, stolen in another pirate raid. Morgan not only swallowed the ruse but offered a handsome donation for its replacement.

For authentic seafood, explore the Mercado de Mariscos. Perched between Casco Viejo and the city centre, this fish market bears little resemblance to the faded clapboard structures nearby, because it was rebuilt with help from a Japanese foundation. Surrounded by white tileand-steel trays, chatty vendors prep pyramids of snapper, unfurl giant squid and stack lobster claws on ice.

Upstairs, a busy bare-bones restaurant can prepare your market purchase as you like it or you can order off the menu. Ceviche starts at a reasonable $2.50 a portion. If you have just come back from a night of clubbing, try the Get Up Lazarus seafood soup, alleged to put hangovers (even those caused by seco, a distilled sugar cane liquor) in remission.

A tendency to innovate has made Panama City dining some of the best in the tropical Americas. To go all out, linger over the five-course lunch at Manolo Caracol, an elegant immersion in tropical tastes. That includes spiny spotted lobster, fire roasted and drizzled in olive oil; fresh salads with paper-thin green mango and shrimp in sugar cane sauce. But local diversity means you can also get excellent Chinese food, sushi, Argentine empanadas and even a pretty good New York bagel.

Hunger appeased, check out the newly minted Cinta Costera, a waterfront greenbelt that runs the length of the downtown and will later extend into Casco Viejo. Or for perspective, taxi out to the Causeway, where you can rent a bicycle, stroll or join the after-work crowd for sunset drinks and breezy views of the city skyline. Also on the Causeway you will see a seeming disarray of crumpled, colourful steel forms comprising a design by Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry. Scheduled for unveiling later this year, BíoMuseo will be a world-class museum and botanical garden focused on the country’s astounding ecological diversity.

Yet, Panama City is one of the only urban centres where you can find wildlife outside of a museum. Squirrel monkeys, anteaters and white-tailed deer are easy to spot on the nature trails of Parque Natural Metropolitano. Through tour operators, you can now go up a 35m high crane in the park, originally set up by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to study forest canopy.

A visit to Panama City is not complete without watching megaships raised and lowered through the locks of the canal, making child’s play of one of the world’s greatest engineering feats. But it only looks easy. Some 22,000 workers died digging this 80km stretch through the Continental Divide – a sacrifice made in the name of staggering commerce. It is worth pondering that the sugar in your coffee, your mobile phone, and the car you drive all made this trip.

At the sprawling Miraflores Visitors Center there’s an excellent museum with viewing platforms overlooking Miraflores Locks. Digging has already begun for the US$5 billion-dollar expansion that will double the canal’s capacity in 2014. With it will come more traffic, goods and people from far corners of the earth.

If there is a fortune to be told for Panama City, it’s a rather obvious one. It’s not likely to stand still any time soon.

Where to stay, where to eat and where to go

5 places to stay

Hostal Casa Margarita, Calle Los Claveles, Casa 97, 507-3945557, hostalcasamargarita.com. Family-run B&B in a chic stucco home. Breakfast is on the patio by tropical garden. Doubles from around €59.

Canal House, Calle 5ta, Av Casco Antiguo, 507-2281907, canalhousepanama.com. Boutique hotel. In the cobblestone Casco Viejo neighbourhood, ideal to explore on foot. Suites from €149.

Los Cuatro Tulipanes, Av Central between Calle 3 and 4, Casco Antiguo, 507-2110877, loscuatrotulipanes.com. Apartments in Casco Viejo with maid service. From around €153.

Luna’s Castle, Calle 9, Casco Viejo, 507-2621540, lunascastlehostel.com. American-run backpacker haunt with all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts and friendly staff. The fading colonial establishment has an adjoining bar. Dorm beds from around €10.

DeVille Hotel, Calle 50, Av Beatriz Cabal near Calle 50, 507-2063100, devillehotel.com.pa. Small and smart, the DeVille revels in details such as fine antiques and custom linens. The city location is ideal for those keyed into a bustling urban setting. Suites from €198.

5 places to eat

Mercado de Mariscos, Av Balboa. Above the city fish market, this tiled eatery hums with chaos but the ceviche (raw marinated fish) couldn’t come fresher.

Viso 52, Vía Italia, Punta Paitilla, 507-7150349. This restaurant has a creative menu. Seafood such as grilled octopus and squid ink risotto are spot on. Good wine selection and swift service.

La Posta, Calle Uruguay, Bellavista, 507-2691076, lapostapanama.com. Seasonal menu with fresh seafood, local meat and regional produce. Mangrove wood gives a sweet smoky flavour to dishes such as roasted pork chops. For dessert, try warm cake made from organic Betas chocolate.

Manolo Caracol, Av Central and Calle 3 Oeste, Casco Viejo, 507-2284640. The set menu changes daily but always highlights regional ingredients (many of which are common to markets but rarely on menus) in new incarnations. An open kitchen allows you to partake in the process. Set lunch €19.

Granclement, Av Central, Casco Viejo. Using whole ingredients in guarded French recipes, Granclement makes ice cream an art. You can’t beat the tart tropical gelatosand velvety orange chocolate, ideal during a stroll through the Casco.

5 places to go

Miraflores Visitors Center. Miraflores Locks, 507-2768325. A four-floor museum dedicated to the Panama Canal, with observation decks. Have a drink at the restaurant, which overlooks the locks.

Teatro Nacional. Av B, Calle 2, Casco Viejo, 507-2623525. Ballet and orchestral performances have an added glamour in this historic 1907 building with inlaid gold and a crystal chandelier.

Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. Pipeline Road, 507-2646266. A must for bird watchers, who can see toucans from a 32m observation tower.

Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Ancon neighbourhood near Av de los Mártires, 507-2628012, free. Prominent Latin American artists are well represented. Isla Taboga. Ferry access with Barcos Calypso at the Causeway, 507-3141730. Tropical isle that painter Paul Gauguin used to visit.

Hot spot

Havana Panamá, Calle Eloy Alfaro, Casco Viejo. Vintage salsa bar with live horns blaring from the bandstand. About €8.

Shop spot

Galeria Karavan, Calle 3ra este, Casco Viejo, 507-2285161. Sells pieces made by local artists; including Kuna embroidery and Congo art.

Go there:Twenty-five flights connect weekly to Dublin from Panama City. Continental Airlines (continental.com/ie) has the most flights (connecting in Newark). Delta (delta.com), KLM (klm.com/ie), United (united.com) and British Airways (britishairways.com) also fly regularly.