Path Between the Seas

Beyond the attraction of its famous canal, Panama is surprisingly cosmopolitan -- and increasingly popular.

Cover Story

March 28, 2004|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As I hailed a taxi at Panama City's Tocumen International Airport, an affable young man named Patricio asked to share a ride with me. A travel agent, he had just returned home from several days of meetings in the United States. While we sped toward downtown, Patricio explained the purpose of his visit north. "I was trying to let people know that Panama City isn't the boonies," he said. "We have tall buildings! We have cell phones!"

Indeed. Visitors are usually shocked that Panama City is so large -- nearly a million people live there, 2.7 million in the entire country -- and cosmopolitan.

Chief among the city's charms is how nonchalantly it accommodates both old and new. Plantation-style houses with clapboard siding and corrugated tin roofs stand in the very shadow of mirror-sided high-rises.

Whereas much of South America looks to Europe, and Spain above all, for a sense of cultural heritage, Panama is unique in how much it cleaves to America. The U.S. dollar is the currency of choice, The Miami Herald was dropped outside my door each morning at the Intercontinental Miramar, and nearly everyone I met spoke at least some English.

In other words, there are many tall buildings, many cell phones, and many gracious citizens so thoroughly conversant in American slang that they can use a word like "boonies."

Patricio may have his work cut out for him convincing Denver, Chicago and Atlanta of this, but he's absolutely right: Panama City is hardly the boondocks.

Outside the capital, though, things are wilder, more on the eco-edge. Which explains why several versions of the TV series Survivor have been shot in Panama's dense forests, volcanoes, mountains, deserted islands and beaches.

As this year marks the centennial of yet another interesting feature of this country -- in 1904, Theodore Roosevelt led the United States in taking over the construction of the Panama Canal from the French and, in the process, helped Panama declare its independence from Colombia -- it seemed an ideal time to visit.

Day in the city

What I immediately discovered is that it's easy to get disoriented here, especially for Americans who may be accustomed to regarding the Atlantic and Pacific as on the east and west coasts.

In Panama (which is slightly east of Miami) things get turned around, so that the canal itself runs north and south. That Panamanians use the words "Atlantic" and "Caribbean" interchangeably only adds to the puzzlement.

When I told my hired guide, Nelson Forbes, about this confusion, he laughed. Forbes is a tall black man with an imposing physique and a lilting British accent. His ancestors, he told me, were from Barbados and had come here to work on the canal. We got into his van and drove off for a day of sightseeing.

Forbes deftly maneuvered between dozens of privately owned buses that are gaudily spray-painted to suit their owner's whim. These vehicles are called "Red Devils" for the mischievous way in which they're driven.

To get oriented, we headed east to Panama Vieja, the old town, where a conquistador, one Pedro Arias de Avila by name, built what was the first Spanish city on the Pacific Ocean in 1519. Gold that went from Peru to Spain was stored here in a small garrison that was sacked in 1671 when Capt. Henry Morgan (yes, there really was such a person -- I'd thought he was just a rum mascot made up by Madison Avenue) came overland and attacked the fort from its rear. What remains are a few stone buildings, including a tower of the original cathedral.

Talk to a Panamanian for longer than a few minutes, and the name of Manuel Noriega, Panama's former dictator, will invariably come up.

Pushed from power about 14 years ago, nowadays he's often derided as "The Pineapple" because of his bad skin. "He was a weird guy," one man told me. "Noriega was both a sadist and a Buddhist."

As we walked back to his van, Forbes confided to me that Noriega's prison cell in Florida had a living room, dining room, two bedrooms and a DVD Player. When I expressed my doubts, he held his ground, though he couldn't say exactly how he'd learned such details.

At Casco Viejo, where the city was eventually rebuilt, there is a collection of ornate Spanish- and French-influenced architecture so extraordinary that in 1997 the United Nations declared it a world heritage site. Imagine a combination of New Orleans and Havana, with a stucco wedding cake of a presidential palace towering over all.

Just a few steps from this immaculately groomed spot, buildings begin to crumble, doorways are sealed up with cinderblock and walls are stained muddy green by sea moss.

The squalor, though, is strangely picturesque. Sleeping dogs lie in the gutters, but the streets are cobblestone. Shrubs that are nearly trees grow from abandoned windowsills; bougain-villea climbs up walls and blooms with ferocious intensity.

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