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Drop anchor, and savor Panama's variety

This global crossroads and its bustling capital spin disparate times and tides into a vibrant, laid-back ambience; catch it while it lasts.

By CECI CONNOLLY, Washington Post
Published March 4, 2007


It was sticky hot, and I was grungy after a morning of exploring the cobblestone passageways of Panama City's Casco Viejo, a 300-year-old cross between the crumbling charm of Old Havana and the restored glow of New Orleans' French Quarter.

In my baseball cap, khaki shorts and sweaty T-shirt, I was dressed for a sidewalk hot dog stand. But a Panamanian friend had been raving about S'cena, the new Mediterranean restaurant in this colonial-era part of town and, when I stumbled upon its entrance, it seemed the food gods were summoning me.

Still, I felt a little sheepish as I passed the first-floor jazz bar and stepped into a scene of sophisticated serenity: white tablecloths, fresh flowers and waiters in pressed shirts. I braced myself for dirty looks and a dreary table near a swinging kitchen door.

Instead, the owner greeted me like a lost cousin, whisking me to a prime table and gently draping a linen napkin across my lap.

And apparently I wasn't the only one getting VIP treatment. They were calling the guy in the next room "Mr. President."

"No, no," the waiter whispered, "it is the president - of Panama."

Somehow, it all made sense. After just a few days in Panama, you start to recognize faces, and the prospect of sipping a midday chardonnay a few feet from the country's most powerful man doesn't seem so far-fetched.

I had seen ads touting Panama City as the next super-swanky Miami, and I was prepared for velvet-roped lines and South Beach-style snobbery. Heck, Jenna Bush was clubbing here just before I arrived. So not having to deal with a waiter with an attitude was a relief.

But I can see why it gets the Miami comparisons. The city tucked on Panama Bay offers a hip urban vibe and a distinctive skyline. It has sunshine, seafood and shopping opportunities galore. And although Panama is part of Central America, its rhythm and stylish Latin inhabitants have a Caribbean flavor.

There are notable disappointments. Panama's tourism industry sometimes struggles to meet the demands of travelers. (The man at the Avis counter had no idea how to get downtown, and cabdrivers were no better.) And though the country has many exquisite beaches, none is within walking distance of the hotel strip as in Miami's South Beach.

But ultimately, the beauty of Panama City is that it hasn't become Miami yet. It's much more welcoming and manageable. And now is the time to go - before the Panama Canal gets its third set of locks, before Donald Trump finishes his 65-story tower and before the prices shoot just as high.

Museums, modernity

Even today, 93 years after completion, the Panama Canal is an awesome engineering feat, guiding ships the 50 miles from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

We arrive at the Miraflores Locks and head to the outdoor viewing deck. The sight of 965-foot-long behemoths squeezing through the canal is unbelievable, the precision timing of the locks a marvel. Over a loudspeaker, a bilingual guide rattles off canal stats and fun facts.

The next day, while my fiance, Manuel, works, I ask my cabdriver to drop me at the Plaza de la Independencia in the center of Casco Viejo. The modest square looks much as it did 100 years ago: narrow one-way streets, stone edifices and a few rusty cannons.

It is also home to another canal museum. At one-fifth the price and almost empty, it is a much better deal than the locks museum.

The story of the canal - from the failed effort by the French in the 1880s to current widening plans - is presented in bright, colorful interactive exhibits. There's a full recounting of the 22,000 workers who died, most by malaria or yellow fever, and a sobering account of the segregated system that left dark-skinned workers with less money in their pockets at the end of each workday.

Outside the museum, the neighborhood offers the best of Panama City - past, present and future. In 1671, after pirate Henry Morgan burned the original city to the ground, the King of Spain chose this boot-shaped peninsula to rebuild.

Although Casco Viejo fell into disrepair in the 1950s, today it is enjoying a revival. The two worlds meet on its labyrinthine streets: Elderly women hang laundry on wrought-iron balconies as construction workers transform dilapidated convents into swanky loft-style condos.

Astride two continents

We are driving through Cocle Province, 75 miles southwest of Panama City. As we negotiate yet another tight curve, the landscape shifts from the tropical palms of the capital to the sturdy pines of this mountainous region - all in less than an hour.

As we reach the top of one particularly steep hill, I holler, "Stop the car!" On our right, in the distance, is the Atlantic Ocean's Caribbean Sea, and to the left, down a terrifyingly steep rocky cliff, is the Pacific. We are on a ridge separating two continents.

The town of El Valle sits inside a crater created 3-million years ago when a huge volcano blew its top. Today El Valle is one of the largest inhabited dormant volcanoes in the world. The town's fresh air, leisurely pace and cooler temperatures make it a popular weekend retreat. Nature lovers rave about the region's hiking trails, waterfalls and horseback riding.

But the main "activities" we encounter are relaxing and eating. Friends have arranged lunch on the patio of La Casa de Lourdes, a Tuscan-style mansion with a poolside restaurant and terraced gardens. We order a bottle of wine. It goes well with a table full of fresh seafood dishes.

The next morning, heading back to the city, we stop at a roadside stand and order two chichemes, a blend of milk, sweet corn, cinnamon and vanilla. If we sip them slowly, they should last us all the way to Panama City.

Ceci Connolly, a Washington Post reporter currently on leave, is based in Mexico City. She was formerly in the Washington bureau of the St. Petersburg Times.

IF YOU GO

Panama City

Where to eat:

- S'cena (Calle Primera in Casco Viejo), elegant but not fussy. Mediterranean food. Entrees are about $28.

- Panama City's local elites congregate at La Posta (Calle 49 and Calle Uruguay, www.lapostapanama.com). Entrees are $9 to $15.

What to do:

- To see the Panama Canal in action, make the short drive to the Miraflores Locks (www.pancanal.com). Admission is $10.

- Catch a performance at the National Theater (Ave. A between Calle 3 and 4, Casco Viejo). Admission is 50 cents.

- The Golden Altar (Ave. A between Calle 8 and 9 in Casco Viejo), one of the few treasures not stolen by pirate Henry Morgan, is in the Church of San Jose.

- The Amador Causeway (west of Casco Viejo) provides great views of the Bridge of the Americas.

Information: Panama Institute of Tourism, www.visitpanama.com