THE SLOW AND EASY Panama of old, with Americans in white, wide-brimmed hats smoking cigars in the morning, has been exchanged for a boom town run by young real-estate-swapping Latinos with the keys to luxury SUVs jangling in their pockets.
Panama City has faded in and out of the international spotlight over the years. World-class feats of engineering, dirty and complicated wars, American invasions and dodgy military dictators have all helped to give the country its colourful reputation. Today, Panama City is one again on the up, but this time it's money and influence from across Latin America that are making the city sing – money, as well as models, music and urban chic.
Panama is known worldwide for that muddy ditch that forever changed its fortunes in 1914, and the subsequent flow of global shipping traffic. The 82-kilometre Panama Canal, an engineering wonder that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for commercial ships, has been a mainstay of Panama's economy since it opened. Each vessel that comes through pays its fees, helping to build this tiny isthmus nation. But now the canal is being put on steroids, with a US$5.25 billion expansion project under way that will double its capacity by 2014, as well as making it wider and deeper to accommodate the growing size of cargo ships. The project has helped inject life into all of Panama, putting some meat on the bones of the country's economic good times.
I first see this new life in the oldest of places, Casco Viejo. Also known as Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, this is Panama's historic centre going back to the 17th century, and it contains many of Panama's cultural institutions. After going through decades of decay, it is once again the beating heart of the city.
I step into its cobblestone streets on a Saturday night, and my first stop is Casa Blanca, one of the city's best restaurants, and a great venue for seeing Panama's moneyed class, as well as being seen yourself. Located in the heart of the old city, the tiny restaurant has spilled out onto the street, with tables filling the sidewalk in two directions around the plaza dedicated to Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar.
While Casco Viejo is undergoing a major revitalisation, the big real-estate money is to be made across the water, in the gleaming new towers clustered along the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Panama City went through a major real-estate boom from 2005 to 2008, with investors flipping properties and doubling their money with ease. Fast times expressed themselves in new nightclubs, plenty of champagne and the country's return to the regional spotlight. Things took a breather during the worst of the global financial crisis, in 2008 and 2009, and values of toppriced properties dropped by around 25 percent. But although the economy slowed, few construction projects failed. Most importantly, the Panama Canal expansion was voted through and a new president, Ricardo Martinelli, was elected to office with promises to make the city a new hub for business.
Today, the city has become the hub of Central America, with a solid and international banking system, excellent medical care, a variety of international schools and world-class shopping, hotels and restaurants. This has made it a refuge for Venezuelans, Colombians and Mexicans – and their money – fleeing economic and political uncertainty in their own countries. Latin American real-estate buyers are finding good deals as a huge glut of new luxury residential property in some of the city's best neighbourhoods comes onto the market.
Add to that the swarm of international engineers and contractors on site to expand the canal, and you have a city rich in cash and ambition, with an appetite for parties.
Panama City's nightlife takes on a variety of shades, depending on the neighbourhood. The city's bar and restaurant strip along Calle Uruguay, also known as Zona Rosa, is a safe bet. In case anyone thought this area's time had come and gone, W Hotels has just announced it will make its Central American debut with a new property slated to open in the district in early 2016.
But it's down the narrow alleys of Casco Veijo where Panama's new nocturnal identity is being forged. A good place to start is Mojitos sin Mojitos, a bar that caters to expatriates and offers affordable beers and good barbecue, in case you skipped dinner. An open-air bar on a busy corner, it makes a great place for people watching. I sit listening to snatches of negotiations – for love, money and power; the communion of a city full of ambition.
I wander down the cobblestone streets, seeking my next adventure. Nightlife starts late – no one starts drinking in earnest before 11pm, so there's no rush. Much of the old heart of the city is still under reconstruction, with leggy models teetering on high heels as they trip their way over make-shift sidewalks and pedestrian detours in search of the hottest new chef or a visiting DJ, and I to pick my way past the facades of churches bristling with scaffolding and streets torn up by progress.
Casco Viejo was a rather undesirable address until recent years, and is still densely populated with working-class families. I walk down a street peering into doorways; one contains a middle-aged man on the couch rubbing his bare belly as he watches a flickering television, while the next opens into a darkened club lit by a solo strobe light.
I find my way to La Casona, a bohemian art gallery-cum-bar in a decrepit building that appears to be near collapse, with a large section open to the night sky. There's little to show whether the sky light is due to design or decay. Lest I doubt the louche appeal of La Casona, an impossibly tall and svelte young woman slinks out of the shadows to the bar, cigarette dangling from her fingers. “Tienes fuego?” she asks. I don't, but desperately wish I did. I leave the bar, not sure if I'm looking for a lighter or another drink. My decision is soon made for me, as a deep, dark beat draws me down yet another narrow street, this time leading towards the water. Down a few concrete steps and I'm standing on a rough platform under the skeletal framework of a dock. As the coloured lights rake across the barnacled underbelly of the dock, I know I've found my corner for the night.
Panama City also has plenty to offer once morning breaks. Touted as Central America's shopping Mecca, it offers some of the cheapest electronics and fashions in the region. The canal itself has become a tourist draw, with viewing platforms that allow you to see a giant ship slide through the Miraflore Locks with only inches to spare on either side.
But it's the vibe of a place on the make that makes Panama City worth visiting. There's an attitude on the streets, in the clubs and in the air that says this is where Latin America is at today.
Much of Panama City carries a mix of quaint colonial charm – wrought-iron balcony railings and beautiful churches – and the gritty edginess of a city that's found a new money tree. The old-world architecture is a timely reminder of Panama City's boom-andbust past, the new-money glitz a sign that everyone gets another chance.