Panama — Look at you now!


The rapidly growing skyline of the new Panama City.

by Jim Simpson, Wilmington, DE

She was there waiting for us when we landed at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport. Maria was no longer the 22-year-old newly minted schoolteacher who visited us 35 years before as part of an exchange program; she was now a 57-year-old woman with a husband and three grown children.

In 1970, Maria stayed in our home in Delaware for six weeks. She didn’t know a single word of English then. We kept in touch over the years, and in April 2005 we were making our sixth visit to Panama.

Our greetings with Maria, her husband, Jorge, and her children were joyous. During our 4-day visit, we found that Panama, like Maria, had grown and prospered over the years.

Changes

During our trips to Panama since 1964, we had been through the Canal Zone many times, since most of it was open to the public. I didn’t know the Zone well, but it was easy to see that it was always part military, part industrial and all business — except for the theater, golf course and YMCA, among other things, that provided a break from the everyday business of operating the Canal.

Maria adorns her husband, Jorge, with the therapeutic mud found in the thermal waters of El Valle, located in a high mountain valley.

From 1914 to 1999, when it was ceded to Panama, the Zone was home to many Americans, both military and civilian employees of the Canal. They were fiercely loyal to the Zone, and the distinction between the Zone and the Republic (of Panama) was always sharply evident.

But times have changed.

Maria and her family are fortunate to live in a twin home, former base housing, in Clayton, known as Fort Clayton prior to 2000. They purchased it at auction about four years ago, when it became publicly available for the first time. With four bedrooms, ½ baths, a carport and front, side and back yards, it is large by local standards.

Nearby we saw a recently built, stylish gated community, very un-Zone like. New home communities are popping up everywhere, a sure sign of economic confidence.

Albrook was a name always associated with Albrook Field, an airbase in the Canal Zone. Now it’s a mall! This bilevel mall is so big that it has parking for 5,000 cars plus 1,000,000 square feet of retail space, with plans for even more to be built. A full-sized carousel and hot-air balloons were the centerpieces of the huge food court.

Panama City

Panama City, simply called “Panama” by the locals, offers many big hotels as well as moderately priced lodging. Prices are about the same as in the U.S., except for labor-intensive products, cheaper due to lower wages.

The control tower of the Miraflores Locks overlooks the ships passing on the far side of it. In 1969 we walked across this lock gate to the observation tower on a catwalk with a folding railing. Now, visitors are kept at a distance.

Driving the city streets ranges from hectic to dangerous. Taxis are plentiful and are preferred. Buses are plentiful, too, but are of the highly decorated former school bus variety that lurch forward, making as much noise as possible and putting themselves wherever they want to be regardless of anyone else. They are referred to as red devils, since they sometimes consider traffic lights merely decorative.

Our first full day was spent like many Panamanians spend Sunday, by leaving the city. We went west on the Pan American Highway to El Valle de Antón, a higher and cooler mountain valley about 90 minutes away where there are thermal waters, a 70-year-old hotel, the rare golden frog and a very interesting Sunday-only craft market. All of this is accessible only after a half hour of driving on a narrow, twisting, climbing road which seemed to have no straight sections.

It wasn’t much cooler in El Valle than it was in the city, but it was still very pleasant to visit — relaxing with a quiet appeal.

It is always hot in Panama, except at high elevations. Temperatures are usually around 90°F, and the best time to visit is January to mid-April during the dry season.

Resort visits

Jim, Susan and Nancy Simpson join two Kuna Indian women taking a break from selling their molas.

Farther west up the main highway, we passed the newly built Royal Decameron Beach Resort, fronting the Pacific. It is large, attractive and all-inclusive and looks much like a Jamaican or Mexican resort. Where Panama had some limited appeal to adventure travelers in the past, now for the first time it is courting vacationers.

Another day we visited the Gamboa Rainforest Resort (visit www.gamboaresort.com) in the former Zone, a brand-new eco-resort not far from Panama City. The resort’s aerial tram took us through the treetops to the base of a tower which offered a great view of the Canal with ships passing silently far below us. Tickets are $37.50 per person, but coupons are available with 2-for-1 offers.

At the nearby Miraflores Locks, from the top of a new 4-story observation tower built in 2000, we saw a ship pass though two locks followed by a day boat with uniformed schoolchildren aboard. Nearby, an attractive second bridge has been built across the Canal and is of a design similar to the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Expanding skyline

With a high level of commerce going through the Canal and its being an established offshore banking center, Panama City has always had a large number of tall office buildings to support the financial community. The skyline of the uptown part of the city was attractive, especially when seen from the Pacific Ocean.

One of several arched windows at the new Gamboa Rainforest Resort frames the lakeside setting just off the Panama Canal. Resorts such as this cater to vacationers in a way not done prior to Panama’s gaining control of the former Canal Zone.

Today, the number of buildings has multiplied manyfold, with new construction evident all over but especially along the ocean. Now, however, these new buildings are highly styled condominiums, another sure sign of economic vigor. Many have 30 to 40 floors and stand side by side by side like soldiers — similar to Miami Beach, only much bigger. These new buildings create a vibrant skyline not matched by many cities in the world.

In all this high-styled splendor, there is still the Casco Antiquo (Old Quarter), sited on a peninsula jutting into the Pacific very close to the Canal entrance, with its narrow streets, old buildings, quiet charm, a monument to the French efforts to build the Canal, and Kuna Indian women selling their unique molas, colorful fabric art. These molas make excellent souvenirs and are found only in Panama. A visit to the Casco Antiquo offers a moment of calm in a newly prosperous and hectic city.

The former Fort Amador area, created by connecting several offshore islands with a causeway that parallels the Pacific entrance to the Canal, is now renamed simply Amador. This is an entertainment venue with outdoor nightclubs, bars and restaurants — bustling at night — with ocean on both sides.

The eight of us enjoyed our last night’s meal together at Alberto’s Restaurant on the Amador Causeway, al fresco of course, with a sleek, multimillion-dollar, 4-deck white yacht moored just 100 feet away.

Panama is on its way to becoming a dominant city in Latin America. It has come into its own since the Canal Zone no longer exists and Panama is free to expand into this formerly off-limits area. The past five years have witnessed explosive growth.

It was a great trip, almost like going home, and it was especially good to see that both Maria and Panama have matured beautifully.