Left: Steam-shovel trains excavate the channel of the Panama Canal circa 1913; the ever-changing Panama City skyline from the top of Cerro Ancon, a 654-foot-tall hill that towers over the city Inset: Gatun Locks, each gate weighing 700 tons, open for an inspector
Left: National Geographic/Getty ImagesInset: Getty Images; Jon Hicks/Corbis
Nearly 100 years after digging the greatest commercial gateway on earth, Panama aims even higher.
Walking around a growing city makes you feel more alive, like hiking through brush instead of along a trail. I’m guessing at that, since I’ve never walked through brush. I wouldn’t have gone to a growing city, either — only I had no idea that’s what Panama City has become.
I expected Panama City to be sleepy and old: wide-brimmed hats, hammocks and excessive pride over a technological feat that’s nearly 100 years old. This is not what I’m seeing. I haven’t been to Shanghai. I’ve never seen Dubai. I was too young to see Las Vegas in the 1960s. But I’m finally seeing a city grow in fast-forward: buildings crawling up like silver sea monkeys; new infrastructure struggling to keep up with traffic; foreigners flocking to open factories, hotels and restaurants; construction vehicles blocking street after street. With a 10.5 percent growth rate, Panama’s economy is expanding faster than China’s. And if you told me that’s where I am, I would believe it.
Leaving the airport, the driver points out all the things a proud citizen from a newly first-world city would: the 70-story Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower Panama, the 66-story Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis, the Le Méridien Panama — all new. The skyscrapers in the banking district. The enormous Albrook Mall, where Jennifer Lopez recently shopped. The almost-finished Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo. The $1.6 billion subway project, scheduled to open to riders in 2014 to fix some of this first-world traffic we’re stuck in. The hospital that does some of the most cutting-edge stem-cell treatments in the world and dots the city with American medical tourists here to get some of the best treatment available.
A half-hour later, our driver drops off my lovely wife, Cassandra; my 3-year-old son, Laszlo; and me at The Westin Playa Bonita, an enormous, beautiful convention hotel that opened this past January. The rooms are modern and the views of the ocean and the boats lining up for the canal are fantastic. Though as every guest I meet tells me, as if they alone had come up with the best joke possible about the hotel, the playa isn’t so bonita. The nice beaches are either on the harder-to-reach Caribbean side or four hours away at either Peninsula Azuero — the Tuscany of the Americas — or the beautiful, untouched San Blas Islands. There are three infinity pools, one swim-up bar and one pool bar — and lots of free American food: hot dogs, pizza, nachos. It’s also where I find out Panama uses American currency. What was more: These people love Americans, mostly because we took out their dictator, Manuel Noriega, in 1989’s Operation Just Cause, and gave back their canal as promised in 2000.