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Articles Blog

Panama City, Panama

Karyn Planett

Smack In The Crosshairs of Commerce

Big time. You’ve got skyscrapers punctuating the skyline like towering glass and steel pickets in an architect’s fence. There are banks bigger than big and corporate headquarters for leaders of industry, communication, transportation, technology and the like. There’s a stock exchange where heavy hitters play with high stakes causing rhythms of economic ripples to sweep right the way around the world. And you’ve got a menu of upscale services to cater to the wants, wishes, whims and whatnot of a vibrant local and expat community. The sweet smell of success wafts in daily on the damp breezes blowing from the surrounding tropical rainforest. It’s all right here in Panama City, here where the big boys and girls, fat cats and kittens come to play.

But it’s always been that way.

Spain Liked It

So much so that in 1519, Pedro Arias de Avila planted his nation’s flag claiming it as Spain’s first true community on the American Pacific Rim. Within a dozen years, his men attacked the all-powerful Incan people in Peru paving the way for proper plundering, as some would have it, of the vast wealth of silver and of gold all bound for the coffers of home.

The crumbling remains of Panama Past can be seen in “Old Panama”, also known as Panama Viejo. A World Heritage Site today, it is in ruins thanks to a colorful character known as Admiral Sir Henry Morgan. A privateer by trade, he either torched or was there when the torching began in 1671. The facts are debated, but he definitely had his eye on what was considered the wealthiest city in all New Spain. For the record, Morgan and his band of merry looters evidently missed out on the really big bootie, so to speak, because it had already been secreted away to a ship bobbing happily along offshore.

Weary residents who survived the privateer’s wrath abandoned the ruins of Panama’s first city and built a new one, today called Casco Viejo.

Also Known As El Casco Antiguo

Newish, really. It harks back to the 17th century and is undergoing a gentrification face-lift. A fresh coat of paint here, some toney eateries there, galleries featuring installation art, and pretty people rambling about. A walk along the vaulted promenade known as Las Bovedas is a must in this Spanish colonial city covering 38 blocks (called manzanas). So, too, the defiant remains of the church and convent of Santo Domingo still standing despite fire and quakes and time. The plazas offer fine people watching whether it’s in Plaza Bolivar, named for the famous liberator, or Plaza de Francia. The latter features a monument that whispers of the silent suffering, even death, faced by canal workers felled by malaria, yellow fever. It pays tribute to the 22,000 engineers and laborers who died constructing the canal.

Plaza de la Independencia is known as the Plaza de la Catedral, as well, as its centerpiece is the Metropolitan Cathedral. 2003 marked the 100th anniversary of the nation’s separation from Columbia, which took place in Plaza Municipal. In this exact location, in 1821, formal procedures for Panama’s independence from Spain occurred.  

Fast Forward To Today

Casting off the shroud of historic Panama, the spotlight shines brightly on the glitzy glamour of modern Panama City. Considered the Third Panama City, she resembles nothing of her former self. It’s here where designers showcase their latest collections, where celebrated chefs whip up their finest foams and froths, and business lunches last long into the steamy night. It’s like Miami Beach, only further south.

Not far away is that which put Panama City on the map. The Panama Canal. Visitors can’t escape the lure of this folly, this visionary’s dream, this world wonder, this scratch in the earth that shaved months off a mariner’s journey. They want to see for themselves the path between the seas that altered the course of commerce forever. And they can from the Miraflores Locks Observation Center or a sail on Gatun Lake. They’ll learn of the plans to expand the operation with the construction of a pair of new locks, one on the Atlantic and one on the Pacific. In addition, existing channels in Gatun Lake will be deepened and widened and the Culebra Cut will be deepened, as well. All that means more commerce, more business, more business people, more services, and a lot more buzz about this city that’s been dubbed the Dubai of the Americas.

Never mind. Just munch on a Panamanian favorite known as bollo. It’s a delightful bit of soft corn wrapped up in cornhusks. Then support the Kuna Indians by purchasing one of their vividly embroidered pieces called molas or beaded winnis that decorate their calves and wrists. After all, they were among the original traders in Panama along with six other indigenous tribes. But that’s another story.