Panama! One day in the fall of 2013 I was sitting at home, minding my own business and tending my new travel blog. A few days later I was sitting in a luxury suite in the Hard Rock Hotel Panamá Megapolis in Panama City, recovering from a hard day of sightseeing with my trusty guide, Osvaldo. Talk about a travel experience …
How did this all happen? My editor at the Toronto Star emailed to tell me he had a travel assignment on offer. There were two choices — Daytona Beach or Panama. While I was deliberating, Daytona got taken, so Panama it was. No complaints from me: I’ve been here twice before (three times if you count a one-day stop on a cruise) and I like the country a lot.
Air Transat, the advertiser, helped with hotel stays from its Panama tour partner, Decameron Hotels. And they must have a lot of pull, since I found myself ushered into the biggest suite in this glitzy, spanking new hotel. It was bigger than my condo (and nicer), with two bathrooms and two televisions, which welcomed me by name when I turned them on (the TVs, not the bathrooms).
There was also a balcony from which you could see one of the world’s most booming cities and its brilliant setting on the Pacific. And of course every nook and cranny in the hotel was crammed with rock memorabilia. A purple jacket and guitar from my fave, Neil Young, had a place of honour on the first floor — he even shares a display case with George Harrison.
Panama City has always been a busy place, with all the traffic generated by the canal. In fact, when I was last here, back in 2008, the town was so busy you couldn’t find a hotel room. Today, that growth has just accelerated — and how.
There’s a beautiful, expensive waterfront park, new hotels to meet the surging demand, sky-high condos everywhere and some crazy-looking new skyscrapers, including the F&F Tower — the swirly one on the right in the photo below.
Even Toronto native Frank Gehry is building a multi-coloured bio-museum at the entrance to the causeway, where the canal begins. Typically for Panama — and a lot of other places, too — it’s way behind schedule and mired in controversy. But it’s still a sight to see.
Even the Casco Viejo, the city’s old historic quarter, has gotten a facelift. Once a dodgy place, today it’s more like old Quebec City, or the French Quarter in New Orleans. The bums are mostly gone, the old buildings spiffed up and turned into resto-bars where you can dine on outdoor patios or drink the night away with trendy folk.
There’s a classic Latin nightclub called Habana Panama, and even a pop-up club set up in the roofless shell of an old unrestored building: they just put in a bar and a dj’s table and opened shop. How’s that for hip?
Of course, the whole city isn’t sparkling and new. There are still some gritty areas with people living in Third World apartment blocks, and the sidewalks could use some work. But there’s a lot happening in Panama, and likely more to come once the revenue starts rolling in from the big expansion of the canal, which is well under way.
Later: a look at beach life in Panama.