I had few preconceived notions about Panama before I ended up taking a last-minute trip in November. There was no time to research or formulate a strategy of discovery for my trip. I was for a change, flying by the seat of my pants, courtesy of Copa Airlines! I had read one historical fiction book on Panama years back and took away from it a malaria riddled view of hopelessness against great adversity. Viva to the never-ending revival that this country continues to embrace!
First things first though- Copa Airlines and it’s amazing Sales Executive, Julieta! Be on your toes for a whirlwind tour if she is your host. This woman makes moves by Shakira look geriatric. Born in Columbia, the human dynamo greets us at the airport and whoosh, we are off. The motley agent crew consists of ten female Midwesterners, two from exotic Nebraska and one very brave twenty something guy from Chicago. The flight out is fairly empty so we get window seats and a huge surprise service with a smile, free adult beverages and dinner. Not just any dinner though; This dinner is served hot with REAL SILVERWARE by, gulp, pleasant and sincere flight attendants. It is one wow after the other, including the blanket and pillow in coach. Viva la Copa!
And then the airport; to me all airports are a necessary nuisance, inconvenience, annoyance filled with great people watching. No one pretends in the airport, they are who they are and I find it easy to gauge the pulse of a culture by assessing the environment/structure of the facility and watching people. For some reason, we are in a huge rush to get to the customs line. We pass amazing stores with brands that reflect a pervasive level of disposable income and elegance; Dolce and Gabbana purses, miniature LaCoste tennis shoes I covet and promise to buy on the return, tech stores, perfume stores, on and on. Then crunch, we were at customs and so is everyone else.
The line has great people watching; Suave men with curly black hair, expensive watches and crisp button down shirts smell of sandalwood and bay rum. European ladies complain as the line snaked along and one vivacious Panamanian gal complains to us non-stop in Spanish. Hahaha, as if we know what she is saying; her annoyance at being held up is radiating from every pore. When I grow tired of people watching, I turn my focus back to the group. Not that they aren’t interesting but I will be with them for days on end, so there is no rush to engage. I settle back and let the order of the day prevail employing my strategy of staying quiet, to see what I can see and hear.
This is going to be fun. Liking people isn’t hard when you know you’re heading straight for four days of being shown the best sites, fed the best food and informed by the best tour guide. Yes, meet Violeta! Violeta greets us after our anguished hour and a half delay at customs. She has a tour bus waiting and is excited to get the group going and we’re off!
The first thing Violeta points out are all of the flags flying everywhere. November is the month when independence from Columbia, then France, then the US all took place, at different times of course. She explains that Panamanians like to celebrate everything and as often as possible. So far, so good! The bus ride is typical of any Latin America country and my gaze is riveted to the horizon, ears attuned to what she was telling us. It is rush hour and a gray sky plus heavy humid air lulls me into a ‘just off the plane, trying to grasp my surroundings’ zone. Everything is coming at me so fast with her story of the buccaneer Henry Morgan and gold and sacking the city and moving the city and priests and two high tides a day and all of this set against the back drop of some of the tallest buildings I’ve ever seen.
Approaching Panama City the traffic is horrendous, like any city at rush hour. I was told this city is very American because the Americans had been here for so long. It doesn’t look or feel anything like America to me. It is Panama through and through, a very astounding cosmopolitan city with modern construction stacked solidly against impoverished fishing villages that still cling to the bay. Not for long, says Violeta. They are being paid to relocate because they will be torn down for more skyscrapers.
Okay, suspicious by nature of government and rampant growth, I ask pointed questions about the main economic engines. What are they? Banking and tourism, I am told, service industries. No manufacturing? None beyond a couple of large cement plants. Banking and tourism, hmmm. A couple of American drug companies also. Careening off the main street, we squeak into a tiny street with high rises on all sides. This is our spot for two days as we tour Panama City, loving every second of it. How could I not when walking into a brand new Waldorf Astoria in the center of a thriving metropolis? Oh, and did I mention that sushi extraordinaire from Ginger, the on site sushi restaurant is scheduled for dinner after a grand tour of this brand new hotel.
Check in is smooth but I barely notice because my senses are captured by elegant and textured surroundings. Whoever designed and decorated this place has a brilliant eye, knew intimately how to seduce with sumptuous luxury and bespoke design. Our host is a man more handsome than Richard Gere- Victor. Victor, Victor, Victor. I would have followed Victor anywhere and I did, to the rich smelling spa, to the lounge that had a ship’s prow above, to the infinity pool that had a peek a boo zone to the ocean, and to Peacock Alley of course! Peacock Alley is a flagship icon in every Waldorf Astoria. It was christened that because at the original Waldorf in NY, the ‘peacocks’ would be out every night in their finery. I notice businessmen, women who could be models and of course, the Europeans who have a nose for locating the latest jet setter spots. I am there following Victor until back in the lobby, we are told to retreat, refresh and reconvene for dinner. Sushi virgins squirmed while I tried to figure out the button system in the elevator. Found my floor, found paradise.
Take me back, please take me back; the gold carpet, the white leather furniture, the view across a city twinkling with lights, the marble shower and of course the Waldorf Astoria robe. Did I mention the bed? I never sleep the night before a trip so the bed is screaming my name, but not as loud as my stomach is screaming “Ginger”. I jump into the shower, get myself ready and find the table segregated by sushi enthusiasts and sushi virgins. I straddled the group but am definitely of the sushi enthusiast bent.
Victor is there at the head of the table, elegant, gorgeous and informative of everything Panama. He has attended college in the US but is a bona fide Panamanian with a lot of knowledge, wine and sushi to share. As the wine flows, he relays the seriousness of the robust development Panama is experiencing. Everyone wants to be in Panama, part of the action and reaping the rewards of doing business there.
The hotel we are in is new build, nine months old. The movie “Steel Fist” is being filmed in Panama and yes, Usher is staying here tonight, Robert DeNiro arriving for the weekend. Nicholas Cage is a common sight on the streets and well, why would you want to be anywhere else?
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, the sushi virgins have withered at the sight of a beautiful sushi tray set before them. Being good sports, they all decide that it is now or never and before it’s all over, that end of the table has out consumed us, the ladies brimming with compliments and surprise at how good it all is! Success! Travel does change people, even sushi virgins. The group sated, the wine glasses empty, the stories told, it is time to head into our suites to experience the magic of sleeping in the same building as Usher. Fond thanks expressed to Victor, I once again find the elevator to try to figure out the button system. Not bad this time because all I have to really know is floor twelve. Tomorrow we were going to a part of the city that is hundreds of years old to see the Golden Altar. I am nothing if not a history buff, so this excites me beyond words. Give me cobblestone streets, crumbling buildings, tales of piracy and tragedy and I am mesmerized.
The hotel has everything an agent from the Midwest could want- great views, plush furnishings, marble floors in the bathroom and a one demi tasse coffee maker hidden discreetly in the cabinet. Okay, I confess, I never figure out how to use it. I am technologically challenged, but this is the first time a fancy European coffee maker got the best of me. I didn’t want to admit that. Being coffeeless as I prepare for the day just makes me want to get going sooner. The fantastic buffet downstairs is a welcome sight, but not as welcome as the stiff brew of Panamanian coffee. Oh yum, it is good. I always enjoy the little interesting foods of other cultures and the buffet includes tiny glass ‘cocktails’ of fruit that unrecognizable but so tasty. And plantains of course, for every meal.
Then into the heat and onto the bus with Violeta who was takes us into Casco Viejo or old town. This is where the fervent Panamanians moved the city after the pirate, oh excuse me I meant buccaneer, Henry Morgan sacked the city in the 1600s. This was a protected peninsula and so the city moved here.
But back to Casco Viejo. Oh the beauty, the architecture, the history, the people on the streets. Of course, a visit to the very important Cathedral Plaza is one of the stops. It was here that the canal offices were located, that the successes of the French were celebrated and then their failures were felt. It was here that the news arrived on a regular basis of the deaths from yellow fever and malaria.
And it was here where the two most important institutions held sway, the church and the government. I can’t describe the beauty of the two spires that had inlaid abalone shells; the sharp dichotomy of the tree growing out of the gutter and the obvious remnants of squatters. Old town is experiencing a revival and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but 15 years ago, it was a decaying remnant filled with the underbelly of a society that chose the far off peninsula because it was quite clearly off the radar. Crime and despair ruled until once again, Panamanian pride swelled and purposeful reclamation of this gem began. Our stop there ends with the plaza where busts of de Lessups and other notables in the French debacle period stand guard over the old dungeons. The initial French canal company had high hopes and threw money, men and equipment at a project they had no realistic grasp on.
The outcome was many lives, fortunes and reputations lost. In fact, the French government truly toppled a midst the canal’s failure and then what happened? Of course, the Americans stepped in. But that is a story for a different day or paragraph.
The striking thing about this area is that it is so popular! Groups of school children in uniforms are touring on the same day we are. Their obvious interest is explained by Violeta as partly due to the their eagerness for learning but also because it is November, the month of liberation from serial foreign rule. Their voices ring clear and the usual mischief is afoot until they line up to enter a building. Then it is all business and these little Panamanians are heading into their future with a great curiosity about their past.
A stroll through the historic streets, we locate our coach and off we go, though I feel a wrenching away of something near and dear to my heart- deep history, incredible vistas and a revival that bows to a sweeping past as it shapes the future. I have never seen a more diverse culture, history or economy up close and personal.
Soon on to the next great thing, we head across the Amador Causeway, a narrow land mass to the marina area where snazzy little tourist shops overlook a marina with sleek yachts. Across the bay, high-rises loom. This stop has the one thing I will take home as a personal treasure, the book about the building of the Panama Canal by David McCullough. Having read some at home now, it is a long and droning on book, not because it is a boring story, but because so very much happened and it took so very long for it to happen and still isn’t finished.
The Panama Canal – legendary failure, incomprehensible opportunity; indeed, the little canal that could and does. The neighborhood approaching is once again, steeped in history. A winding road twists up the drive delivering us to a world-class visitor center at the Milaflores Locks. Museum, theater, opportunity to be a virtual canal captain, but most incredibly- the viewing decks overlooking the canal. We step inside to see the exhibit that shows the mechanics of it, but looking down on the canal, its countenance defies its relevance. It looks tiny, humble, insignificant. If a person were to stumble across it, it would hardly evoke mention. But with the knowledge of its progenitor and its importance to the world, the deep welling of its importance cannot be expressed. Here worlds collide.
A Mercedes Benz freighter is slipping away when we hit the deck. Here is the narrow, the locks that lift the vast ships up to the next level. Some pay a small fortune, like the Princess cruise ship “Pearl”- $468,000 to pass through. The wonder of it all as history, economics, politics, all converge in the narrow channel. I can barely stand to leave, but we must head then to the ocean! We steer toward an area called Buenaventura.
We travel across the Bridge of the Americas, covering the entrance to the canal. The road we take is a modern highway through hills and it is raining. The tropical jungle outside the bus window has rivulets of mud water rushing to lower levels and leaves that shake ferociously as the rain splats on their broad leaves. We go up and down and all around on this road until suddenly, we exit the mountain pass and we can see for miles. Emerald green peaks with nothing on them, just rising up to meet the hazy sky. As the road curves down we see fields with cows, small settlements and fabulously decorated graveyards. People walk along the road, even though it is a four lane highway.
We stop at a roadside market to use the restroom because some of the ladies on the bus are certain a day of touring without adult beverages just wouldn’t be right. The market has an odd mix of American colas and a lot of deep-fried foods- cheese and chicken and other things that don’t tempt me at all. What does catch my eye is a little stand-off the main building with seashells and carvings and hammocks. The lady inside never greets me or meets my eye as her husband watches me suspiciously. I feel guilty for being there and wonder why.
After a trip to the surprisingly modern bano, I head back to the bus and we go on. Another stop in San Carlos gives us the chance to visit a local grocery store- one of my favorite things to do anywhere I travel. It is interesting, many of the same products we use but in different trappings. I see nothing really unusual here which surprises me. We load back on the bus and grind through the sunshine and oppressive humidity and end up in an area that is remote, elegant and obviously very posh. I am told Shakira has a home here and that celebrities really do hide here in plain site.
The open air lobby of the JW Marriot is set in a building of impressive colonial architecture. Outside, a chapel and the largest Coturu tree I’ve ever seen (okay, the only one I knowingly have ever seen) stands overlooking a fabulous plaza area and the spa.
A host as handsome as Victor greets us after we are given wet towels and a cooling beverage. Everything about this place screams understated elegance. It is incredible and after making my way to my room, I am again overwhelmed by the opulence and attention to detail. I believe that the Waldorf and now this property are two of the finest resorts I’ve ever stayed in.
The room is furnished in colonial decor and the balcony overlooks the lagoon and pool. The lagoon has vacation homes, rentals and owned units but everything is so calm. It is a world away from the hustle of Panama City. It is the break one rushes to and then folds willingly into- the embrace of solitude, peace and relaxation. But wait, we have a site inspection to do.
Suite after suite of refined luxury; all amenities are of the highest quality. The dining venues, the golf course and steak house overlooking the greens, the spa, the chapel and yes, the quiet. Even when a wedding takes place the following morning, it is all very subdued and elegant.
Dinner that night is in a private over the water palapa. Choices are again excellent with a focus on local seafood and vegetables. Could it be any more perfect? Yes, if paired with exquisite wine! However, with a full day of resort touring the following morning, off to bed it is. The bed is heavenly, especially after a great Jacuzzi bath in the oversized tub. With some famous pillows wrapped around my sleepy little head, I slip into restful slumber.
The morning sun is bright, languid and after a stolen cup of coffee on the balcony at dawn, I make my way down to the sumptuous buffet breakfast.
Honestly, it is nice to see how healthy the food choices have been all along. This is no different and if there’s something better than fresh squeezed orange juice and yogurt on a sun drenched patio with a weird hidden bird squawking in the palm tree, I don’t know what it would be. Back on the bus, we visit a couple of Wyndham resorts- Tryp Playa Coronado and Wyndham Playa Blanca Grand and I get the feel of what the all inclusives have to offer in the region. They are very nice, with gracious English-speaking staff and managers that want to engage you in their product. The variety of resorts is interesting, from the small high-rise perched over a postage size stamp beach to the sprawling mega resort with a thrumming night life. That evening we visit the sprawling Royal Decameron, a place where everyone can find a perfect spot, a favorite meal, a special meal or activity. A large resort on a great beach filled with people from all over the world. This is a very good way to end a day of discovering what the beach life in Panama can be like for clients.
I return to write this weeks later, realize it has been two months to the day since I returned from Panama. I have endured bone chilling, soul stealing ice storms, too many weeks of holiday music and the depressing look of my home after lights have been packed away. Yet I am burning with a fever for one thing still- Panama. I am obsessed. I read their online newspapers. I Facebook chat with Violeta. I try to steer every one of my clients there and have one ready to book her flights now.
I watch You Tube videos and revisit scenes in my mind: passing an indigenous couple who are walking on a street, their colorful clothes and especially the beads adorning her calves- her face obscured by her scarf, agonize over the missed opportunity to buy a painted feather on the terrace overlooking the mud flats at low tide, the ragged laundry hanging on the pied a terre next to the refurbished opera house and of course, the overwhelming feeling in the National Plaza as I was being rushed back onto the bus- that I was being torn away from something important, missing something I wouldn’t be able to capture again.
Other images capture my memory and linger- the drive past the fishing village on the mud flats and the inner city slums where we are told the residents are being bought out to move on to a better life. High rise hotels will be built after their homes are demolished and transplanted into the suburbs. The crazy guy in the parking lot at the local market we stop at. He wavers between being a parking lot attendant and wants to sell something to someone, but no one is there. Panama’s version of the burbs, tract housing with large plastic tanks on rooftops to capture rainfall. The menacing presence of police after we have sat in backed up traffic. When the bottle neck breaks free, we are told a shooting had taken place and innocent people related to someone high in the government were killed, young women with bright futures.
One overriding element is the languid, tropical air, breathing into your lungs and pulsing with a life that seems just under the surface. The people of this country are so passionate that the running joke is that the only thing they take seriously is celebrating. Their holiday celebrations and their independence anniversaries and their religious holidays, all of them are woven tightly into how everything else works. They are not peripheral and as on Sundays, everything shuts down on holidays and people celebrate and eat and dance and oh how they love a parade!
I scan today’s news and see where Spain is rough housing about the canal expansion, workers are threatening to stage a slow down and I am happy. The vibrant tumultuous rhythm of life is tumbling along in a country where the world is constantly recreating itself. The modern world and the ancient world exist side by side. Mega ocean liners sail past regions that can only be reached by boat and indigenous people protect their lands without breach. The Trump Tower casts a shadow on fishing boats that return to the slums in the mud flights at high tide. And visitors to this place leave never to be the same again. Captive to Panama, I can make it through one more ice storm because in my future, there is Panama.
I truly did not want to return home. I knew what was waiting for me- winter, work and whining. I arrived back after midnight and was so tired driving home I was relieved to make it. It isn’t hard for me to move on after traveling, to leave a place when I’m not captured by it. By Panama, I am captivated. Captivated captive longing to return; painted feather, marble statue, city skyline, poky over ripe mountains, noisy hidden bird, canal. Captive.