Part 2 On distant dirt – Panama City
Welcome to Panama City
From the moment I stepped off the plane, it was obvious that Panama is a city that attracts hustlers. From all over. It always did. Panama City is a melting pot of races and cultures representing the entire globe. From the time it was discovered in the mid 1500s by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias Dávila – who used it as a launching pad for his expeditions into South America – Panama has been a transit point through which goods, people and commodities flow. The country’s leading income generator is the Panama Canal.
The early exploiters quickly recognized that the isthmus was central to transporting to Spain the gold plundered from the New World. Then in the 19th and 20th centuries Panama Canal was the flame that attracted workers like moths from as far away as India and China, and as close as the Caribbean. And it lured the investors and swindlers, who could see this was Panama was open for business. It’s an ideal transit point for the drugs that flow from South to NorthAmerica. And expats and retirees find this a benevolent country to live cheaply and well.
What remains of the original site of Panama City (plundered and burned by the pirate Henry Morgan) juxtaposed against the modern skyline.
My introduction to the Panama City hustle
On arriving to Panama City mid afternoon on a Monday in mid November, I was in the melee with the usual unruly mob of greeters and cabbies and disoriented travelers as we were disgorged into the airport. A clean-cut-looking young dude held up a sign that read TAXI AUTORIZADO. I asked him how much it would be and he cited me $30. I thought it sounded reasonable, knowing full well trips from the airport are always costly.
I know I am vulnerable having just arrived, feeling, rightly, that I am in the hands of a complete stranger and I have all of my valuable equipment, passports, credit card, money and only the vaguest of an idea of where I am going.
I nodded agreement and he sent me up the escalator to the departure level. I felt uneasy. There another man waited. And asked “Taxi?” I asked how much and he replied $28. Hmmm.I thought these two guys were working together. I was quizzical, but accepted. He then told me to wait a minute while he got his taxi. Finally my intuition kicked in and I realized that these guys were anything but a ‘taxi autorizado’.
Just then, a simple yellow cab, a small Japanese vehicle, pulled up and I asked how much he’d charge me. He replied $20. So, I gave him my bags and just as we are about to put the bags in the trunk – taxi #1 pulled up – an aggressive-looking and gleaming white SUV. The taxista was angry and tried to snatch my bags away from taxista #2. They yelled at one another and I told my story in somewhat rusty Spanish. All around people were tutting at the fuss that was being kicked up. Taxista #2 called an ever ubiquitous cop over, who listened to the story and asked me “Who do you want to go with?” I indicated taxista #2 because I was genuinely creeped out by the bullying taxista #1. I left in his cab, looking over my shoulder to see if taxista #1 was following.
As we drove into the city, taxista #2 pumped his fist, laughing and exclaiming his triumph over the bully. At least I made somebody’s day.
A vertical town
The first impression I had of Panama City was that it is a soaring high-rise kind of city. Extreme vertical, although the tallest building on the horizon is the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower Panama at 72 floors. Shaped like a sail, the hotel gets mixed reviews, like so many other of the modern skyscrapers in Panama City – the majority of which have been built in the last dozen years and many sit half empty.
Since 2000, after the U.S. turned over control of the Panama Canal to Panama, construction has boomed along with the buoyant economy. The Panama Canal size is being doubled to accommodate larger ocean liners, the UNESCO World Heritage site in Casco Viejo area is being restored, cranes reach into the sky and everywhere men and women in helmets and bright yellow t-shirts are building something – turning the city into a veritble construction zone.
Like anywhere else going through a boom, Panama City is notorious for poorly engineered and constructed buildings. In the heart of the city’s prestigious financial district. The newly constructed RevolutionTower, designed like a corkscrew is truly beautiful as it revolves around itself. But, typically, vacancy rates are high and there’s already grumbling about the lack of elevators to service this over 50-storey office tower.
Cabbies grumble over the impossible traffic, constantly snarled and always in a disarray. They complain that President Ricardo Martinelli is spinning out of control with all of the new construction. Although I noted that they were thrilled about the new subway lines slated to come on stream in 2014, the same year as the new canal will be opened.
Traffic snarls abound in Panama City
Malls, malls, malls. Big ones with inexpensive stuff. Others with exclusive stuff. From every round corner on the globe. Panama City is a shopper’s mecca. Five significant shopping malls, plus the myriad small shops and services that don’t even show up on the radar. And not counting the vendors, selling lighters or the indigenous molas and any number of other items. Part of the City of Colon, at the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal, is the world’s second largest free port. Cruise ships stop there so passengers can shop. You can buy anything in Panama City.People laying over during their flights can get shuttles to bring them to to one of the big shopping malls or to a casino.
A Panama City website boasts of 23 gambling facilities in the city, including race tracks. The casinos vary in quality and sleaze factor and are big consumer attractions, as are the prostitutes who linger at neighboring restaurants searching for men to give them access to the casinos. It feels a little like Sin City.
The Veneto Wyndham Grand Hotel offers magnificent views of the city, gaming, health spa and night club. Right next door is the seamy Doll House Gentleman’s Club, which offers erotic massage and strippers.
It’s all part of what makes Panama City a favourite destination for North Americans – whether they’re losing money in the casinos, shopping, investing in property or retiring. I met many of them. They like it because it’s easy, it’s inexpensive, it’s way less regulated than the U.S. or Canada and the weather is always warm.
Reconstructed Casco Viejo – a UNESCO World Heritage Site